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The Great Wall of Chinese Excuses


Pitchman, actor, politician – in that order – California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing great box office in China.
That’s according to the California papers and the political reporters tagging along in Gov. Terminator’s wake. It’d be kind of silly if it weren’t so sad, providing, as it almost always does, more proof that businessmen make crummy diplomats. Sadder still? Schwarznegger’s trip is almost certain to overshadow one planned next week by President George Bush.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. The Chinese who meet Schwarzenegger and who are being interviewed for stories like this one from the San Francisco Chronicle aren’t picked at random. They’re getting into events to see and chat up Schwarzenegger and his posse of California businessmen because they can be trusted. Trusted by the Chinese government. Trusted to be pleasant, trusted not to be controversial, trusted to – figuratively and literally – toe the party line.
Schwarzenegger’s accompanied on this boondoggle of self-congratulation by a posse of business folks, most of whom should know better. Not because the Chinese are posed to take over America and the governor should know better than to encourage that trend. That’s a straw man argument that’s as racist as it is short-sighted. No, it’s that doing business in China almost always means doing business in partnership with the Chinese government.
And that’s not always a comfortable trade-off because the Chinese government is one tough business partner. Ask Yahoo, which has deservedly taken heat for its co-operation in the jailing of a Chinese dissident. No one from that company is listed as being on the Schwarzenegger trip although, like most of high-tech – which is what the Chinese really want from California, not wine or fresh avacados – there’s probably some meeting and greeting along the way.
As I have in the past, I’ll point you to Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of GlobalVoices, the aggregation site for on-line writing. MacKinnon has spent more time in China than most folks and has been harshly critical of tech’s willingness to co-operate with the government. She, more clearly than most, sees the connections between doing business in China and doing business for China. It’s a tough line to draw and it’s one that can easily get lost in all the show-biz that surrounds Schwarzenegger.

Business people make crummy politicians because their job is to make money, not to make the world a better place. That’s not a blanket condemnation nor should it be taken as some kind of moralizing.
But it’s high time folks in the tech business stop taking for granted the idea that their business deals don’t have political ramifications and that they can – somehow, some way – change the world though business deals alone. It’s not going to work. Take a look at what’s going on in Tunis, again through MacKinnon’s eyes. Same story as in China: Business folks, using the excuse of adhering to local law, are making policy.
And that, as much as anything, is the subtext of Arnold Schwarzenegge’rs visit to China. With all this carefully orchestrated meeting and greeting – and it’s not all on the governor’s part, for once – the idea that doing business in China can sometimes come at a cost to Chinese citizens gets air-brushed out of the photographs. It’d be much more interesting if it weren’t such a sad illustration of just how rudderless American foreign policy toward China has become.
FOOTNOTE: For more on tech and politics – from Tunis to your back yard – read my eWeek column on the need for more folks in tech to really start trying to understand politics and politicians. Now. Before some of what’s taken for granted as a permanent state of affairs will have to be heartily defended.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 2:16 PM | Permalink

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