The Wall Street Journal Asia, February 15, 2006
The U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations will hold a hearing today to examine the operating procedures of U.S. Internet companies in China. But at the heart of the matter rests a burning question that is unlikely to be answered: What if China does not democratize?
Congressional questions will not address this issue, and will instead focus on U.S. corporate behavior. Google, Yahoo!, Cisco Systems and Microsoft have all been widely criticized for aiding Chinese censorship, and representatives from all these companies will be present at the hearing. Buried amidst the condemnation of loose corporate morals, however, is a much broader issue that America’s corporate giants cannot address on their own: The fact that something might be desperately wrong with U.S. policy toward China.
When the U.S. Congress granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations to China in 2000, proponents of expanded trade predicted that China’s ongoing economic opening would ultimately lead to political liberalization. The Internet was supposed to be a crucial engine spurring such liberalization. Then President Bill Clinton observed, “[B]y letting our high-tech companies in to bring the Internet and the information revolution to China, we will be unleashing forces that no totalitarian operation rooted in the last century’s industrial society can control.”
Some five years later, Beijing has managed to upgrade its censorship techniques to adapt to the Internet age, intimidating both political dissidents and American companies alike. The Chinese government’s success at political repression has reminded policymakers that at least in the short run, Beijing may have found a way to persist in its authoritarian, repressive ways while devouring cash and technological know-how from the West.
At the moment, these problems are overshadowed by congressmen’s far greater interest in seeking legislation to limit U.S. business collaboration with Chinese Internet censorship. The most sensible legislative proposal currently comes from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission, which has suggested that Congress prohibit U.S. companies, in the absence of formal legal action, from disclosing information about Chinese users or authors of online content to the Chinese government. Such a solution allows U.S. Internet companies to continue to compete in China while easing the pressure to succumb to demands from the Chinese police state.
Regardless of what legislation is offered, policymakers must still confront the unpleasant reality of democratization’s slow boat to China.
This in no way means that economic engagement with China should end. It does mean, however, that although former President Clinton (and the business community) may have been overly optimistic about the democratizing effect of trade and the Internet in 2000, policymakers are not alleviated of the responsibility to look for alternative strategies.
So perhaps after the public dress-down of U.S. Internet giants, Congress can have a serious conversation about a strategy for democratization in China. Each year since 2002, either one or both houses of Congress have sponsored a resolution titled the “Global Internet Freedom Act.” The latest version calls for the commitment of $50 million to establish an office of Global Internet Freedom to combat Internet jamming by repressive governments.
Perhaps Congress can now discuss whether, as the resolutions suggest, to invest large sums in developing technologies to circumvent Chinese Internet controls; whether some of this money would be better spent supporting activists organizing rural and worker protests throughout China; whether resources should be more focused on intellectuals who inform public opinion by revealing corruption and repression; or all of the above.
It seems indefensible that an American company could escape legal consequences for helping to send a Chinese political dissident to prison. On the other hand, it’s entirely unrealistic for U.S. companies to do what some human-rights activists are advocating: Walk out of China all together whenever the Chinese regime demands compliance with unsavory regulations.
“What if China does not democratize?” is an ever-more pressing question. Before China gained permanent trade status, many argued that trade would help China democratize. Today, while not disavowing this possibility, the U.S. government should begin a serious search for Plan B.
Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Asia © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.