Just as the controversy over those Danish cartoons was subsiding, a Congressional committee in D.C. last week was shining a spotlight on another collision of censorious tendencies and demands for free speech. This time the setting was the Far East, not the Middle East, but the reaction in the U.S. was the same: outrage.
In China, four major American technology companies—Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and Cisco—have been accused of helping the Chinese government squelch dissent and political expression. Yahoo has reportedly turned over information that led to the jailing of three Chinese "cyberdissidents." Microsoft recently shut down a popular blog at the request of Chinese authorities, and also has agreed to keep certain words from being used on its blogging platform in China (an American blogger who tested what would make it past Microsoft's blog censoring found that the sentence "I Love Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, and Democracy" was not allowed). Google, whose corporate motto is "Don't be evil," has created a special Chinese edition of its popular search engine (google.cn) that censors results that the Chinese government finds objectionable, such as images of the Tiananmen Square protests. And Cisco is busily selling censoring technology to Chinese leaders.
At the hearing in the House of Representatives on February 15, executives from the four American technology companies were excoriated by Republicans and Democrats who accused them of collaborating with the Chinese government in suppressive activity that would never fly in this country. Representative Tom Lantos (D-California), a Holocaust survivor, reportedly told the executives: "Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night."
Certainly, what these companies are doing is offensive to anyone who believes that America and its corporations should be helping to spread, rather than trample, respect for basic human rights like free speech. But just as the controversy over the Danish depictions of the prophet Muhammad became less illuminating when it was reduced to a simple discussion of the greatness of free speech and the perils of censorship, so a Manichean analysis of what these American companies are doing in China ignores gray areas that are more interesting—and probably more helpful in getting quickly to a better state of affairs.
For example, the companies, it is clear, wish they didn't have to follow the Chinese government's censorship laws in order to compete for China's 111 million internet users, who make up the second-biggest internet market outside of America. "This was not something we did enthusiastically," a representative of Google reportedly told the congressional committee. "Not something we're proud of at all."
But the morally pure alternative—pulling out of the China market altogether—is not likely to make the lives of repressed Chinese dissidents any better, as Congressman Adam Smith (D-Washington) pointed out at the hearing.
"Let's assume for a moment that no U.S. tech company does business in China," he reportedly said. "Does China move forward? I don't think so."
The more technology there is available in China, the better, says Smith and the companies. There are ways for Chinese citizens to get around their government's censorship strategies, and the possibilities for jumping China's firewalls only increase the more connected its people become to the global information-sharing grid.
Already, according to the New York Times, there are 13 million bloggers in China. This is but one of many indications that the Chinese government is playing a losing game as it tries to enlist American companies in its censorship campaign. The American companies know this, even if the Chinese government doesn't yet, which is why they want to stay. The free exchange of ideas is a growth market in China.
Plus, as the companies and others have pointed out, there is a bit of hypocrisy at play among the angered Congressional leaders. If they think doing business with China so unconscionably supports a regime that violates American free-speech values, why have they allowed the U.S. government to grant China "most favored nation" trading status, encouraging American companies to do business there in the first place?
The answer, of course, is that the choice between freedom of speech and censorship is only simple when one is speaking in terms of ideal situations. But as a global grid of constant interconnectedness overlays itself on nations and cultures that are at very different stages of development, politically and socially, free speech dilemmas are increasingly going to occur in settings that are far from ideal. This was the case with the Danish cartoons, and it's the case with the current censorship in China. Welcome, Manicheans, to the messy middle of a march toward a truly globalized society. Prepare to be very outraged for a very long while.