Beijing’s apparent indifference to Google’s threat to pull out of China and Hillary Clinton’s call for Internet global freedoms underscores the difficulties of dealing with repressive governments
Ironic, isn’t it? Almost four years ago, Google was pilloried before Congress for doing business with China. The search giant had agreed to Chinese censorship requirements in return for being allowed to operate a local Chinese search engine, Google.cn. Google’s famous credo of “Do no evil” had seemingly dissolved into “Do no evil unless there’s a profit in it.”
Consider, for instance, what the late Tom Lantos – Democratic member of the US House of Representatives – had to say that day in February 2006: “Instead of using their power and creativity to bring openness and free speech to China, they have caved in to Beijing’s outrageous but predictable demands simply for the sake of profits.” He added to Google, “Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.”
Lantos urged Google, along with Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco Systems, which were also in the hot seat with Congress, to grow a “virtual backbone. What Congress is looking for is real spine and a willingness to stand up to the outrageous demands of a totalitarian regime.”
Google apparently slept on it for four long years and, suddenly, has emerged as the darling of human rights activists for objecting to alleged Chinese-generated cyber-attacks that attempted to obtain gain access to personal information on dissidents who used Gmail to express their dissatisfaction with the Chinese government. Google also reported that more than two dozen US companies doing business in China were subject to cyber-attacks in an apparent attempt to gain access to intellectual property.
Google responded by announcing it would consider reversing its policy and no longer censoring searches on Google.cn. It said it would even reconsider the feasibility of doing business in China at all. As of this writing, Google is still in a considering mode, as it has not stopped censoring searches.
That didn’t stop one of Google’s harshest critics at the 2006 hearing, Rep. Chris Smith, from heaping praise on Google for its brave stand in, so far, maintaining the status quo in doing business with China.
“Google deserves to be praised for the decision. It is also a blow against the cynical silence of so many – including the Obama administration – about the Chinese government’s human rights abuses,” Smith said in a statement. “I have been meeting with Google executives, and they’ve known for some time that their decision had proven mistaken and China was growing more repressive.”
In the interest of bipartisanship, Smith might have also added the former Bush administration’s silence on the same subject. Or, for that matter, Smith could have thrown in Congress’ own lack of backbone – virtual or otherwise – since that 2006 hearing.
Since then, the United States has engaged in extensive and futile posturing to persuade China to curb its Internet censorship policies as part of larger US policy initiatives involving the intellectual property rights of companies doing business in China, where piracy rates are high.
As US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke noted after the recent attacks on Google, “The recent cyber-intrusion that Google attributes to China is troubling to the US government and American companies doing business in China. This incident should be equally troubling to the Chinese government. The … administration encourages the government of China to work with Google and other US companies to ensure a climate for secure commercial operations in the Chinese market.”
The Obama administration further raised the rhetorical stakes on 21 January, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered what was billed as a major address on Internet freedom but, in fact, showed just how hobbled any administration is in dealing with China and other repressive regimes when it comes to Internet privacy and security.
Clinton said the Internet “has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous there are so many people in China now online.” However, she added, “The United States and China have different views on this issue. And we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship.”
Clinton didn’t suggest any specific remedies or other funding for human rights groups attempting to fight the good fight. Beijing scoffed at the whole affair.
“We are firmly opposed to these words and deeds, which are against the facts and damage Sino-US relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement. “We urge the US side to respect facts and stop using the issue of so-called Internet freedom to make unjustified attacks on China.”
All of which adds up to more of the status quo.