Jim versus Adam on China Censorship–Thoughts

by on January 24, 2006

Jim Harper of Cato has an interesting exchange with Adam Thierer of PFF on U.S. companies doing business in China. Would a “code of conduct” for U.S. firms doing business there help the cause of human rights?

Suppose a firm refused to do business in China, or got booted out for “pushing back” in response to queries from Chinese officials for information on dissidents? It seems to me that there would be other firms ready to step into that market–China being a truly massive market–either Asian firms or U.S.-based firms, or those of some other nation. There might be some gains from the publicity this stance would generate, but like Tianamen Square, the gains might be short-lived.

Suppose instead that U.S.-based firms in China dragged their feet but did not entirely balk at requests to cooperate with Chinese censorship? Left a few innocent-seeming holes in their content-blocking tech, and so on? That might be the ideal situation (well, the ideal situation would be that the censorship would STOP, but you know what I mean). But I cannot imagine that a code of conduct could either facilitate or recognize this.

This reminds me a bit of the debate over divestment from South Africa that raged on college campuses in the 1980’s. The question was whether the trustees of the colleges should sell off any investments in companies that did business in South Africa. I was at Reed College at the time, and agreed, somewhat against my own inclinations, to take part in a debate about the merits of divestiture–defending the idea that South Africa would be better off if American firms were *not* pressured to get out. When I started doing research, I was really astounded by what turned up–anecdotes about employees of U.S. firms taking part in anti-apartheid protests, and about the positive influence that Americans had on the culture of tolerance in South Africa in providing role models for how different racial groups could work together on the job; evidence that apartheid was harming the South African economy by keeping black South Africans out of management positions that desperately needed to be filled, and so on. Divestiture would clearly not have been a good idea.

China, of course, isn’t the same. Yahoo can probably provide Internet services in China and other remote communications services without rubbing shoulders much with the general Chinese population, or influencing the culture of the bureaucracy. But perhaps a crack could be opened in the doors. But China has been very isolated for a long time.

It would be good, if only American businesspeople saw themselves as moral actors engaged in a moral enterprise–the glorious, wealth-building enterprise of trade. Then perhaps they would exert themselves a little more. But American pop culture is determined to portray business as a morally ambiguous enterprise, trade as exploitive, and so on. So perhaps actuall working businessespeople feel there’s no point in trying.

Or are they trying? Anyone working in China got some good anecdotes?

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