Monday, February 20, 2006

Go and Sin No More

Representatives from the four big American high technology firms were hauled before an American-style inquisition last week. The four, Yahoo, Cisco, Google and Microsoft defended their company’s operations in China before a subcommittee of the U.S. Congress.

All have sinned, but there are mortal sins and venial sins. Yahoo handing over information to authorities that helped to send three Chinese dissidents to jail certainly seems to be an example of a mortal sin. The others stand accused of venial sins.

Microsoft shut down the blog of an outspoken blogger. Cisco apparently sold equipment that can help the Chinese censor the Internet, while Google agreed to block access to certain politically sensitive subjects and websites on its new Chinese-language search engine.

I have the most sympathy for Google. Google is, in essence, a publisher, albeit a very large one. And it is by no means the first publisher to have to deal with censorship while trying to sell its editorial content in a country that has no First Amendment protections.

Even Sen. Hillary Clinton found that her popular memoir, Living History, was altered, that is censored, in the Chinese edition. Her Chinese publisher insisted that she remove certain references to sensitive subjects, such as Tibet or the Chinese dissident Harry Wu.

Clinton was quoted at the time as saying, “I was amazed and outraged that they censored my book.” Outraged? Certainly. But amazed? This is China. China is a communist country. Communist countries censor things.

China isn’t the only country in Asia that has taboo subjects. Publish a cartoon or just an unflattering photograph of the King can get you banned in Thailand, which otherwise has a vigorous free press. The late Iris Chang had difficulty finding a Japanese publisher that would translate her history of the Nanjing Massacre exactly as she wrote it.

My sympathies tend to go more with the people who venture out into the arena over those pundits, not to mention Congressmen, who censure Google and the other companies from the safety of their First Amendment cocoons.

At Asiaweek, a newsmagazine, where I worked in Hong Kong, we made editorial decisions every day that could get us censored, banned or punished. So did our competitors. We railed against it, we pushed against the boundaries, worked around them when we could and took our punishments when we had to.

Ironically, China was the least of our problems. But that was mainly due to the fact that our circulation was minuscule. Very few Chinese had the interest or the means to purchase an English-language newsmagazine. The Internet is different. There are said to be more than 100 million Internet users and 13 million bloggers in China.

So maybe Google isn’t just another publisher. The real reason it’s actions have touched a nerve is that the criticism is bound up in the mystic of Google, the mystic of the Internet as somehow transcending censorship rules, and a displaced anxiety about a rising China.


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