Google's lonely stand for human rights in China

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published a book with what may be the best title ever: "The End of History and the Last Man." In it, he argued that the end of the Cold War represented the triumph of liberal democracy as the "final form of human government." Recently, Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder and a thoughtful man, begged to differ. The Great Wall of China stood in the way.

Google, as you must know, has pulled out of China proper and relocated to Hong Kong. The company took this action after it was hacked in China by persons apparently looking to spy on the e-mails of Chinese dissidents. Those who know Brin, though, say that the hacking was just the last straw. Mostly, he was weary of adhering to China's censorship policies, which, he said in a brief interview with the Wall Street Journal, had gotten increasingly severe after the 2008 Olympics. When the world looked away, China took off the gloves.

For Brin, this was something of a personal disappointment. He is a Russian immigrant and the son of a man who suffered under the old communist regime. He is one of those people who thought that China's acceptance of American companies would liberalize the country. Above all, the Internet was going to do wonders. It was the ultimate liberalizing machine -- a communications medium that by its very nature could evade the censors with their clumsy, antediluvian red pencils. Bill Clinton, no naif about anything, struck just the right cliche when in 2000 he mocked China's attempt to control the Web: "Good luck. That's sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall." Now look: The Jell-O's on the wall.

Maybe more to the point, the optimistic note struck by Fukuyama and others has been forcefully challenged, if not rebutted, by the Chinese. Their view of progress, they emphasize, is not our own. The free expression of ideas leads to chaos. Dissent is treason. China is too unmanageable not to be severely and ruthlessly managed. The Internet should not be a force for liberalization. It should be a force to encourage conformity. Let a thousand intellectual flowers bloom -- as long as they all bloom identically.

What's particularly chilling about the Chinese position is that it is unapologetic. From Beijing, you do not get sweet equivocations and buttery lies -- the adamant claim that there is no censorship or, as with the old Soviet Union, the insistence that all those dour people you saw on the street were really brimming with happiness. On the contrary, the Chinese say that their system is their system -- take it or leave it. Brin and Google chose to leave it.

I quote now from this year's State Department report on human rights regarding China: "On Feb. 8, Li Qiaoming was reportedly beaten to death in a detention center. . . . Prison officials initially claimed he died after accidentally running into a wall during a game of 'hide and seek.' "

I quote some more: "In March Li Wenyan died while in custody. . . . The Xinhua official press quoted a senior prison official as stating that Li died while having a 'nightmare.' "

I could quote even more. But the point is that this is China and this is where American firms have elected to do business. I understand the constraints and imperatives -- the amorality of business, the virtue of profit, the belief that shareholder equity trumps human rights, the vast size of that vast market and how, by golly, if they could open a plant in China they could make that country a bit more like Switzerland.

This bald hypocrisy is why virtually no American firm has joined Google -- not Microsoft and not Yahoo -- or said they could not do business in a place where people were seized by the police and executed without so much as even a show trial. Business, as we all know from the "Godfather" movies, is business.

Maybe in the end, the Internet will actually ameliorate conditions in China and maybe the Chinese will succumb to exogenous pressures and liberalize their system. But Google, which admirably walked away from the biggest cellphone market in the world -- that and not its search engine was the real prize -- has shown that in the meantime the price of doing business in China is not its overvalued currency but its undervalued human rights. In this sense, history has not ended. Along with too many American businesses, it has just moved offshore.

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