Monday, August 1, 2005 at 10:37 AM

For Some, Doing Business in China Means Leaving your Conscience at the Border!

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

Some companies doing business in China have committed what Pope Benedict XVI condemns as the sin of moral relativism. Their sin proceeds from the conscious decision to make money off a political economy that thrives on human rights abuses – of every kind imaginable. And, the moral relativism stems from the fact that many of the companies (and governments) that have made this unconscionable decision are the very ones that, not so long ago, divested from South Africa to demonstrate their moral outrage at the human rights abuses of its (now defunct) apartheid regime.

These opportunistic human rights activists have rationalized that the opportunity costs of boycotting China are simply too great. (It is interesting to note, however, that when Caribbean governments used this same rationalization to defy the ongoing American boycott of Cuba, the U.S. government accused them for “aiding and abetting the cruel dictatorship” of a serial human rights abuser for monetary gain.) Of course, moral scruples aside, no one can deny that doing business in China is very profitable indeed.

Nevertheless, here’s a very small part of what doing business in China entails for three companies that are not only the flag bearers for free market capitalism but also presumptive exporters of American democratic ideals:

Recently, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco Systems Inc. all signed Orwellian agreements with the Communist government of China to join the ranks of its thought and mind control police in exchange for access to the lucrative but decidedly dystopian Chinese market. Specifically, they agreed to insert “Big Brother” filters and devices in the computer technology they sell in China that allows the government to not only control what Chinese citizens read on the Internet but also surveil and trap anyone who dares to surf websites that it deems “subversive to the national unity of the Communist state (namely, any site that promotes or reflects democratic freedoms).”

Now, if you find unconscionable the patent doublethink (moral relativism) that allowed these companies to enter into such agreements, please consider the following challenge:

Are you prepared to boycott Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco Systems Inc., (and any other company that contracts in this way to become apparatchiks of the Chinese government)?

Because no matter how they rationalize their agreements, these companies are enabling the Chinese government to do precisely what free trade is supposed to prevent. And U.S. companies that are “constructively engaged” with this government (that is notorious for employing forced labor, jailing political dissidents and engaging in religious persecution) must reconcile their business decision with whatever regard they retain for universal human rights.

Indeed, the company most in need of absolution is Bill Gates’ Microsoft. After all, according to Reporters without Borders (RWB), Microsoft inserted a system called Night Crawler into its MSN spaces to patrol websites in China and shut down any that has not received government sanction. In lamenting this business arrangement, RWB stated that

[f]ollowing Yahoo, here is a second American internet giant giving way to the Chinese authorities and agreeing to self-censorship….The lack of ethics on the part of these companies is extremely worrying. Their management frequently justifies collaboration with Chinese censorship by saying that all they are doing is obeying local legislation.

We believe that this argument does not hold water and that these multinationals must respect certain basic ethical principles, in whatever country they are operating.


Note: The difference between boycotting these companies and boycotting the Chinese economy should not be overlooked. Because even the most uncompromising human rights activist must concede that threatening (anti-apartheid type) sanctions to promote human rights in China is rather like swatting the hide of an elephant with a feather to get it to change course.

In fact, all indications are that expanding the dynamics of free trade throughout China (without having companies sign agreements with the government to enable its totalitarian rule) is the best way to plant the seeds of democracy so that, in due course, the aspirations represented by those who protested in Tiananmen Square can bloom again – not as a protest but as a national imperative!

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