23 October 2005

Yahoo in China: Supporting Evil, or Forcing a Reversal?

Lauren Gelman at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society posts on the recent controversy about Yahoo revealing the identity of one of its Chinese posters to authorities, resulting in the arrest of the dissident. Activist Liu Xiaobo writes an open letter to Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, reported on in the Financial Times, criticizing him for collaborating with evil:
International companies are ignoring basic human rights in return for business opportunity, while the Communist party is offering profits in return for continued control of the internet and the ability to intimidate dissidents, Mr Liu writes.

“The collusion of these two kinds of ugliness means that there is no way for western investment to promote freedom of speech in China, and that in fact it greatly increases the ability of the Communist party to blockade and control the internet.”

“You are helping the Communist party maintain an evil system of control over freedom of information and speech,” he writes.
Gelman goes on to observe that Yahoo is not selling TVs, grain or even leather purses, but "a tool that can facilitate democracy or stifle it. Even if you accept the claim that engagement in China fosters human rights, selling the government a service that allows them to track people’s communications is different from selling them leather handbags."

Which is true, as far as it goes. Commenters are quick to argue the anti-capitalist angle, namely that corporations are not interested in fostering democracy (a word that is increasingly becoming problematic in our world) or freedom, but rather exist solely to make a profit. Others blame the Chinese people themselves for not rising up against the totalitarian regime. I, on the other hand, am observing an interesting potential for reversal.

It is true that, for now, the so-called price of doing business in China is to cooperate with authorities, and that means doing "evil" taken in a Western context. By doing so, online services - and online connections with the rest of the world - are created. Such an acceleration in connecting cultures and ideas will force a reversal in the society that will enable first privileged, and then "ordinary" Chinese citizens to question, and ultimately change their systems of governance. I would be very surprised if they adopt a Western style of democracy - the lack of which may well stick in the craw of American policy-makers. Nonetheless, without the intense acceleration brought about by UCaPP (ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate) conditions, change will be impossible without violence and bloodshed.
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