IN THIS COUNTRY it is not a crime for a journalist to complain -- even to complain loudly -- about the government's attempts to manipulate the media. But it is a crime in China, as Shi Tao, a journalist in Hunan, recently discovered. At a meeting in April 2004, a local communist party boss gave Shi Tao and his colleagues verbal orders on how they were to cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Shi Tao took notes at the meeting and, using his private e-mail account, sent off a description of what he'd been told to a pro-democracy Web site run by a Chinese emigre in New York. A few weeks ago, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for doing so.
Though Shi Tao's "crime" would not have been considered illegal in America, an American company was directly responsible for his conviction. Unfortunately, Shi Tao had a Yahoo e-mail address, and when the Chinese government asked, Yahoo Inc. complied with its request to hunt him down. Questioned about this decision at a conference in China, Yahoo's co-founder, Jerry Yang, declared, "To be doing business in China, or anywhere else in the world, we have to comply with local law." His response, according to The Post, "drew spirited applause from many in the mostly Chinese audience."
In fact, it is not at all clear that Yahoo's excuse is legitimate. American companies are not always allowed to deviate from U.S. practices when operating in foreign countries. Companies are forbidden, for example, to engage in bribery, even in countries where bribery is condoned. American companies have also been successfully sued in American courts for violating international human rights laws. More important, in 1989 Congress specifically forbade U.S. companies to sell "crime control and detection" equipment to the Chinese. At the time, that meant police gear, such as truncheons and handcuffs. Members of Congress have recently asked the Commerce Department to clarify whether that law covers the sale of filters or other repressive information technology. If the conclusion is that it doesn't, maybe it's time for Congress to have a look at that law again.
This is not merely an abstract business ethics issue: Yahoo's behavior in China could have real consequences for U.S. foreign policy. Over the past two decades, many have argued -- ourselves included -- that despite China's authoritarian and sometimes openly hostile government, it is nevertheless right to encourage American companies to work there. Their very presence has been thought to make the society more open, if not necessarily more democratic. If that is no longer the case -- if, in fact, American companies are helping China become more authoritarian, more hostile and more of an obstacle to U.S. goals of democracy promotion around the world -- then it is time to rethink the rules under which they operate.