Can or should politicians interfere with Internet search engines, business and trade because of human rights concerns? I recall that several years ago Chris Smith, the New Jersey Republican congressman, came under some heat for wanting an examination and disclosure of Google’s international operations. He was the head of the House subcommittee on Human Rights. Back in February of 2005, he called hearings to investigate the operating procedures of US internet companies in China. It was thought that there could be a serious backlash against companies which capitulated to the demands of the Communist Chinese government. Of course, he was confronting big money and power. Given the indebtedness of the US to the Chinese and the change in administrations, such efforts were an uphill battle. Human rights abuses have continued and sometimes we have not been the friends of freedom. However, Chinese hacking of Google and further US government scrutiny factored in Google’s growing conscience about the matter. Google has certainly had a strained history in China. Everything came to a head in 2010. Along with other US tech companies, Google acknowledged that they had been hacked (email accounts) and that they were no longer willing to censor searches from China. They threatened to pull out. Also, in January of that year, it was reported that the US Congress was going to investigate allegations that the Chinese government used Google’s service to spy on human rights activists. On March 30, 2010, all Google search sites and services were banned in Mainland China. Today, China has their own brand of Google and YouTube.
Chris’ position was vindicated and his fears from five years earlier were fully realized. Chris is a man of conviction who believes in justice and the right to life. He has even been critical of fellow Republicans who made too many compromises. I have not spoken to him in years but he reminds me of Jimmy Stewart’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Given the current field of candidates, it is too bad that he is not running for President. We all should be concerned about the sanctity of life and human rights. His message was and is a good one: the internet business community should not collaborate with governments that seek to silence and to oppress their people.
Back in 2002, China blocked access to Google from Chinese computers and attempted to create its own search engine, with limited results. In return for access, Google created software to exclude content not approved by the Chinese government. They copied Google and now the Chinese have their own big “censoring” search engine where Big Brother can spy on all. The message was no doubt also sent to Microsoft (MSN) that they were not exempt from such an investigation either. They also censored their search engine for the Chinese and even took down Chinese blogs deemed political by the government. I read of one case where the information provided about the identity of the blogger was used by the Chinese government to prosecute the man responsible. This means that collaboration with the Communists by Internet companies in the US could have led to the imprisonment or even the torture and execution of men and women in China. I would say that was pretty important and given that Chinese slave labor provides many of our goods today; it is doubtful that the business community left to itself would do anything about it.
Congressman Chris Smith made this statement a number of years ago. Are they not still true today, even if the names of some of the players have changed?
CHINESE TRADE: “Through the efforts of the Clinton Administration, we have abandoned the American ideals of freedom and democracy for the sake of marginally cheaper consumer goods from China. We have squandered our patrimony of liberty for the profit of corporations who want access to China’s inexpensive labor market. It is time to do an about face, to condition expanded trade relations upon respect for internationally recognized, fundamental human rights. If we can promote sanctions for video games and rock-and-roll, why can’t we do it to preserve human rights?”
CHINA & GOOGLE: While Google eventually made the morally right decision, it only came after the hacking of their site. “It is astounding that Google, whose corporate philosophy is ‘don’t be evil,’ would enable evil by cooperating with China’s censorship policies just to make a buck. China’s policy of cutting off the free flow of information is prohibitive for the growth of democracy and the rule of law. Many Chinese have suffered imprisonment and torture in the service of truth – and now Google is collaborating with their persecutors.”
GW’s old man, the first George Bush, would agree with arguments that it is better to allow unrestricted business cooperation with China. Although, it seems that we have become as dependent upon their goods as they are with our money. Many of the social changes about which we hoped have failed to materialize. As for myself, I would also argue for political and economic relations with them; but always with strings attached. Our treatment of Taiwan after the Nixon/Ford Administrations has always bothered me. As for Hong Kong, the British made a treaty with a China that no longer existed; should they not have been given their sovereignty? But those are my pet notions. While our country is no paragon of virtue, nations and the world community do have an obligation to insure that businesses and organizations do not trample upon basic human rights. Collaboration with evil makes one an accomplice, for which God will judge each and every one of us. Utilitarian arguments are outrightly rejected by the Catholic Church.
I recall the arguments about opening Western businesses to China when the first President Bush gave most favored status to China; and certainly no one wants to isolate China from the rest of the world. However, economics is the only wedge short of military intervention that we have with the Communists. Do we sacrifice human rights at the altar of consumerism and materialism, either of the Socialist or Capitalist variety?
This growing middle-class in China is still less than one percent of the population. Most of the wealth generated goes to a few hundred families among the upper Communist hierarchy. Middle-class in China translates to making between $3,000 to $12,000 a year. That would rate as the poverty level in the U.S. Many of these will themselves have a servant or maid that is paid $50 a month. Peasants represent 70% of the population of 1.3 billion, earning about $100 a year!
Guess what? Finding computers in schools and coffee-houses, the majority of the bloggers and those questioning Chinese politics are from the poor! Religious persecution is still a predominate cause for internet censorship and prosecution. This includes the Chinese who reject the Patriotic Catholic Church and accept the authority of the Pope. The internet is giving people in China a voice to speak out about oppression. Big business left to its own devices does not care about this; even many in government do not. People who embrace the basic human values in government and business must work together, not only against oppression in lands like China, but also against the passivity and blindness of so many in the West.
I generally believe that government should not interfere with business; however, I qualify this with the exception of human rights. A few years ago when human fetal material was added to a popular shampoo as “animal protein”– individuals, organizations and government got involved. We have fair labor laws that try to preserve safety and dignity to workers. Products produced by companies must face safety requirements. Again and again, when it comes to human rights, governments and other organizations must get involved.
China might be on the other side of the globe. But they are people too with basic human rights and dignity. We should not enable, either through inactivity or secondary collaboration, those who would silence the voice of the poor, those yearning to be free.
A television news report announced that because of contracts with companies like Matel, 90% of all toys sold in the US are manufactured in China. Few Chinese children will ever play with such toys. Catalogues from Autom Catholic Religious Goods advertise inexpensive articles, almost all from China. However, all of it is reserved to foreign export and domestic circulation would be regarded a crime. Heck, even my DVD Player has “Made in China” on the back. Dollar Stores came into existence because of this trade. Other nations could step in, but there is no underestimating its vast scope. I wrote a few years ago that while it would cost us, the US could flex its business muscle for the sake of human rights. But each year the interdependence becomes more pervasive. The day may have come when such action would be too costly. As one critic remarked, “It is too late, the Chinese already own us.”
To illustrate how things have so rapidly changed, it was only in the 1980′s that the last television set wholly manufactured in the US was produced (ZENITH). Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and now also China produces them for us. When it came to clothing, many of us always looked for the “Union Label” and took pride in wearing shirts, pants, and dresses manufactured in the US. But the cost disparity became too much for the poor and the average working man. This started happening in the 1960′s. I recall my first concession to the trend when my mother bought me a new coat for school. It was the mid-1960′s and the coat’s label read, “This coat is manufactured by the free people of the Republic of SOUTH VIETNAM.” Evidently it was an effort to support our allies economically while in conflict with the Communist North. I wore that coat with pride, even though I was only in the fourth grade, because (in my mind) it symbolized freedom and justice.
By the way, there was a television expose some years ago about Walmart where reporters followed shirts and pants from China sweatshops to the US. They found that they were sold at Walmart carrying the designation, “Made in the U.S.A.” When challenged about this, the executives at Walmart said that there was nothing deceptive for while the clothes were of Chinese origin, the attached label was indeed, made in the Unites States. Not deceptive? The label? And these are the people who are supposed to stand up for human rights and justice?
The dilemma about the internet is just one important wrinkle in this situation: how far do you collaborate with thugs to make a buck? Where arguments might be made that trade helps the poor and middle class of China; for an American or Western company to assist in the restriction of information and free speech of Chinese dissidents is something else. And to hand over information that leads to the arrest, imprisonment, and maybe torture of such people is the worst case scenario.
I am not utterly opposed to trade with China. But I did have problems with Google installing censorship software at the behest of the Chinese government that blocked religious sites like the Vatican and Free the Fathers and blogs where men and women yearning to be free speak out.
The Chinese tried to create their own search engine back in 2002 and made a mess of things. But today it is up and running. We helped them in this. We will have to answer for it.
For the record, I should stress that I am not an isolationist. It may be that we must bargain with the devil every day. We can hope that our relationships with the Red Chinese and Moslem extremists will make a difference; but we should never let down our guard and directly cooperate in human oppression. Communism is not dead, and instances of free enterprise can disappear tomorrow if the dragon awakens. Some of our so-called allies in the war against terror are themselves corrupt and oppress minorities, women and others. Is the pacified Westernized Islam that we see here at home the true faith of Mohammed; or is the genuine face really the Hamas and the extremism that we see in the Middle East and now parts of Africa and Asia?
Trade with China will not in itself prevent a new Cold War. Indeed, their military buildup is largely financed with our own money. Oil money in the Middle East can also translate into a fearful New World. I am not sure what we can do about much of this. Such questions will not be resolved by bloggers, but at least we have the freedom to speak, which some do not have. And Western and American companies should not help to silence voices. I only wish people in all walks of life would more effectively engage these issues and politicians would devise a clear plan about where our policies are taking us. We tend to be so short-sighted, instead of looking to the horizon.
Back when Google was much in the news, I wrote: “I guess it all depends upon how seriously Google cooperates with the Red Chinese government. While I am all for the censorship of pornography sites, the protection of children, and the prosecution of those who criminally exploit others; the Communists would use political and religious censorship to oppress their own people. Should Google cooperate in human oppression? What if the censorship software identifies dissidents who could suffer arrest or murder? People still disappear in China. Hackers might find their way around censorship software, but most poor Chinese blog operators and general users only have elementary computer skills. The issue is bigger than Google. If the poor Chinese can get past the national portal to the internet, they deserve protection within the international community. The Web can be a great tool for democracy; or we can ruin it like we did so much else of the media.”