In Nov. 2004, Shi Tao, a reporter for China’s Contemporary Business News, was detained for e-mailing “state secrets” to foreign reporters. The Chinese Communist Party had warned of possible civil unrest around the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, and had directed journalists not to interfere. Government officials were afraid that pro-democracy dissidents living overseas might return to the mainland and disrupt what they considered to be a peaceful political environment. Shi Tao e-mailed a copy of this directive to a Web site called Asia Democracy Foundation. He used a private Yahoo account to do this. The Chinese government found out and demanded Shi’s personal information, which the local Yahoos in Hong Kong were only too happy to provide. Shi was promptly arrested, his computer and personal documents confiscated, and when his lawyer protested, officials suspended that his license to practice and placed him under house arrest.
Shi Tao was not the first person to be punished for using Yahoo services to send political messages. In 2002, Wang Xiaoning, an engineer from Shenyang, was arrested after he posted journal entries in a Yahoo forum. His crime? Calling for democratic reform and an end to single-party rule. A year later, he was convicted on charges of “incitement to subvert state power.”
Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning are both serving 10-year sentences. While it is perhaps unfair to say that Yahoo caused their incarceration, it’s clear the company did little to prevent it. Unlike rivals Google and Microsoft, Yahoo chose to locate its e-mail servers inside China. Yahoo Hong Kong was once a wholly-owned subsidiary, but now it’s controlled by Alibaba, a Chinese company known to cooperate with the government. In early 2006, Michael Callahan, Yahoo general counsel, testified that the company “does not have day-to-day operational control” over its business in China. Having lost the search-engine war to Google, Yahoo’s remaining competitive advantage is its global community of users and China offers the world’s largest untapped market. To gain access, Yahoo has chosen to comply with government censorship and punishment, the opposite of the freedom of expression we’ve come to associate with the Internet.
What is the role of private multinational companies in global politics? It’s no secret that companies like Halliburton, for example, have profited enormously, some would say illegally, from the war in Iraq. American goods and services cross the borders of many countries whose governments suppress the free exchange of ideas as a matter of course. But what about information companies that disseminate knowledge across a supposedly borderless Internet? What responsibility do these companies have to ensure that all users have equal access? The answer, at least with respect to Yahoo’s activities in China, is that any such responsibility is quickly abdicated in favor of pleasing Beijing, an ironic policy given that Jerry Yang, co-founder and current CEO, is a native Taiwanese.
It’s not as if the other large companies haven’t also made concessions. Google’s Chinese search engine censors itself, a result of previous government interference. The “Great Firewall,” the mass of equipment used to monitor network traffic going in and out of China, had made it impossible to find information on controversial topics. Today, searching for “Falun Gong” on Google in China yields a list of articles condemning the banned spiritual movement. Like Yahoo, Google has chosen to cooperate in order to gain access to nearly a quarter of a billion Internet users.
In April, with the help of the World Organization for Human Rights USA, Wang Xiaoning’s wife Yu Ling filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Northern California. The suit charges Yahoo and its Hong Kong subsidiary with divulging information that caused the arrest and prosecution of Shi Tao and her husband. Yahoo filed a motion to dismiss this suit in August, claiming it was “a lawsuit by citizens of China imprisoned for using the Internet in China to express political views in violation of China law,” and that “it has no place in the American courts.”
The Great Firewall won’t disappear anytime soon. Like the brutal Myanmar regime that shut down Internet traffic last week to suppress images of its violent reaction to civil unrest, the Chinese government controls the flow of information and by extension the activities of those companies who distribute that information within its borders. Yahoo has already been criticized by human rights groups for facilitating this control. When Amnesty International USA, a Yahoo stockholder, called upon the company to ask the Chinese government to release the imprisoned dissidents, Jerry Yang said, “It is very distressful for us that we see these things happen.” Pressed further, he admitted that Yahoo would not call for the prisoners’ release. This decision to continue business as usual behind the Great Firewall is troubling. It sends the wrong signal to Chinese citizens, and it shows a lack of corporate courage that may come back to haunt the company.
The author is a graduate of the Columbia College class of ’69.