Do No Evil

A Tiananmen dissident responds to Google's clash with Beijing over censorship and human rights.


Google’s announcement on Tuesday that it had detected "highly sophisticated" attacks on the email accounts of Chinese human rights activists clearly illustrates the consequences of a policy toward China based on a long-standing but faulty argument. For 30 years, Western commentators have argued that expanded human and political rights for Chinese citizens will automatically flow from increased engagement with China on economic and security issues, and other areas of mutual interest. But this thesis is not supported by history — or my personal experience.

In June 1989, I stood in Tiananmen Square with thousands of other Chinese citizens demanding an end to official corruption and advocating for democratic reforms. The Chinese communist regime was then morally bankrupt and floundering. Its rulers were locked in a paralyzing internal debate between hard-liners and reformers. (I urge readers to peruse the memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, who was general secretary of the Communist Party during the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, to understand just how close Chinese citizens came to bringing democracy to our country.) But our hopes were sorely dashed. 

Today, 20 years later, the same Chinese communist regime rules China. But it is now stronger and bolder. Despite the country’s overall economic success and three decades of deepening integration with the world community, the political repression of Chinese citizens continues unabated.

The recent cyberattack on Google is only one example — albeit a striking one — of the Chinese rulers’ disregard for international standards of human rights. In recent months, nine Uighurs have been executed by the Chinese government without even the hint of a fair trial. On Christmas Eve, the widely respected Chinese intellectual and rights activist Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "incitement to subvert the state." His alleged crime was to co-author a treatise, known as "Charter o8," on the failures of the current government and recommendations for bringing to China greater rule of law. One can only imagine what our world will look like 20 years from now if the world’s collective policy of acquiescence toward the Chinese government’s disregard for law and human rights continues.

This latest event should serve as a wake-up call to the international community to heed the wise words of Soviet-era human rights activist Andrei Sakharov that the world cannot rely on governments that do not rely on their own people. As such, human rights should not be viewed as a distinct issue, but as the very foundation for sustainable and just global partnerships. Despite a clear history demonstrating that acquiescence to tyranny only emboldens tyrants — and raises the price we all ultimately must pay in defense of freedom — the current administration still clings to the tenet that human rights, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." 

Today, Google deserves the unanimous praise of world governments and the international business community for its brave decision to no longer censor its Chinese search engine, This action in defense of its mission to "do no evil" stands in stark contrast with Yahoo’s decision, in 2005, to hand over to the Chinese government the private emails of a Chinese journalist, Shi Tao. Those emails were subsequently used to build a case against Shi for "divulging state secrets abroad." He was sent to prison for 10 years. Unfortunately, Yahoo is not alone. Today many companies in the IT sector and other sectors routinely acquiesce to dubious requests by the Chinese government. But as Google now realizes, such cooperation in fact provides no insurance against security breaches and human rights violations in the future.

While I applaud Google’s stand, I also caution it not to withdraw from China — at least, not without a fight. Doing so would only strengthen the control of the Internet by the Chinese government, handing over the search business to Google’s well-regulated Chinese competitor, Baidu. Unfortunately, it seems that Google and other foreign companies operating in China are being forced to make a tough choice — comply with China’s harsh rules, or exit. That choice hasn’t gotten any easier in the 30 years since China’s reform period began. Time hasn’t erased the essential friction.

The burden of finding a better path forward, however, shouldn’t rest upon the shoulders of one company alone. I urge President Barack Obama’s administration, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. business community to work together to develop principles of engagement, similar to the Sullivan Principles, which were created for dealing with apartheid-era South Africa.  Those principles should include a call for a free and uncensored Internet. I believe that a free flow of information, more than anything else, will open the door to freedom. Such steps will help China’s rulers realize that they must change their behavior toward their own people if they want to be truly accepted as a member of the world community.

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