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The Great Wall of Chinese Excuses


Today’s eWeek column is about Microsoft and the bad PR it’s getting since Reporters Without Borders fingered it for co-operating with the Chinese government’s censorship efforts.
This is the latest chapter in a larger story that’s not likely to go away. Remember Nike and all those shoe factories in Indonesia that were alleged to employ children working for pennies a day? That campaign didn’t start overnight but it took the shoe company years to get past the allegations. A similar fate may well befall some well-meaning tech company.
Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch have been critical of how tech companies conduct themselves in China. Yahoo, Google, Cisco and Sun are the ones mentioned most frequently. And you can’t really envy the Hobson’s choice they have to make here. But you do wonder where oh where the U.S. government is on these and other issues having to do with how this country deals with the Chinese. The lack of leadership – or even a decision or two – on this issue in Washington is appalling for a host of reasons.

American businessmen who look at a nation of more than 1 billion people become so dazzled by the possibility of doing business in China that they’ll do almost anything to enter the market. Leaving them in charge of a kind of ad hoc diplomacy – which is what the Bush adminstration is doing when it punts on this issue and leaves it to the supposedly “free” market – is foolish. This mirage of instant customers, as any China hand will tell you, has been a constant theme in U.S-American commerce since the first missionaries did rough calculations of the number of souls to be saved in Nanking. Guess what? It’s never taken hold, neither the religion or the massive import of U.S. goods. Why? Because the Chinese – like Americans – do things their own way. How they’re managing their citizen’s exposure to information coming off the ‘net is a great example. The Chinese want to expand into the global economy – they’ve got people, we need stuff – but are not too hot on the “information” part of the new economy.
The human rights campaign isn’t just being fought by advocacy groups, however. Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Asia hand for CNN, has launched an effort to expand free speech rights to folks working on-line around the world. She’s asking U.S. writers and bloggers with experience overseas to join her efforts in a variety of different ways.
Tech folks like to say that it is better for them to get some access – any access – into China because eventually the network will get people the information they need. It is, they say correctly, almost impossible to censor what’s on the network. That’s true. But it’s the hard work that MacKinnon and Reporters without Border and Human Rights Watch are doing that’s going to effect that change, not business-like decision to abide by Chinese laws and customs.
UPDATE:I say it over here, it comes out over there. MacKinnon has posted the results of her attempt to create a blog called “I love freedom of speech, human rights and democracy” along with instructions – in English and Chinese on how MSN Spaces can be hacked to get around the censorship.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 9:59 AM | Permalink

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