When the internet first appeared it was expected to circumvent China’s censorship controls and facilitate freedom of speech. The volume of information produced, it was believed, would overwhelm the government’s monitoring ability. But the climate of fear that exists in China was underestimated, and ultimately business owners afraid of punishment for enabling illegal discussion have censored themselves.
Even Western companies have bowed to the Chinese. Recent articles in BusinessWeek show that the internet has not forced the Chinese to concede to Western standards of freedom as expected, and in fact many Western companies are caving in to the Chinese.
Recent incidents involving Skype, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google have resulted in American businesses compromising their policies to appease China’s laws, even at the risk of endangering the lives of Chinese citizens who use the American companies’ products.
Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong says that “foreign IT suppliers and companies are willingly, knowingly assisting the Chinese police in suppressing political dissent.?? The companies claim that they have no choice. As Bequelin puts it,
The business interests are so large that you will never stop this. What do you say? Pull out of China? “If we don’t sell, someone else will,” that’s what people respond.
The argument from the businesses’ perspective is that while they are conceding to the Chinese now at the expense of Chinese citizens and their own company policies, the connections with China will expand Western influence and have a liberating effect in the long run. But is this argument credible? These companies are violating their own policies because there is money to be made and they don’t want their competitors to get it. Bequelin suggest an alternative approach:
They [Western companies] could mitigate this first by being more open, by having a firmer commitment to their corporate responsibility charters and their codes of conduct, or by being willing to comply with things such as the U.N. global norms for businesses and the world summit for information systems. They could try to address this. If all companies did this, there would be nothing that China could do about it.
BusinessWeek’s Ben Elgin and Bruce Einhorn believe that the further development of technology like video blogs and podcasts will make censorship more difficult for the Chinese, so the problem may take care of itself. But the willingness of American companies to sacrifice Chinese citizens’ safety to protect their business interests is inexcusable nonetheless.
Read The Great Firewall of China and How China Controls the Internet