On November 6, Congressman Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, looked down from the dais of a congressional hearing and pronounced judgment. “Technologically and financially you are giants,” he told Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and general counsel Michael Callahan. “Morally you are pygmies.”
Lantos’s fury was rooted in the fate of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist sentenced in 2005 to 10 years in prison for the catchall offense of “leaking state secrets.” Shi had used his Yahoo.cn e-mail account to send a copy of a Central Propaganda Department directive forbidding media coverage of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations to an overseas website.
While investigating the leak, the Chinese authorities asked Yahoo China for the identity of the user of the e-mail account that had forwarded the directive. Yahoo’s Chinese office was legally bound to comply, and Shi was arrested.
Yahoo first appeared before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in early 2006, several months after Shi’s arrest became public knowledge. The fresh scolding came after the Duihua Foundation, a human rights group, released evidence that contradicted Yahoo’s assertions in the first hearings that it didn’t know the nature – and thus the potential consequences – of the Chinese investigation.
The hearings were staged to put pressure on Yahoo. In his opening remarks, Lantos challenged Yang and Callahan to apologize to Shi’s mother, seated right behind them. To apologize was to appear guilty, but to refuse was unthinkable. The sense of guilt was reinforced a week later when Yahoo settled lawsuits with the families of Shi and Wang Xiaoning, another imprisoned dissident.
A chastened Yahoo has been forced into a self-criticism worthy of the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that it was the Chinese government that put Shi in jail.
Yahoo itself is guilty of two things: a lack of foresight concerning the risks of locating user information in China (Google, for example, keeps its servers offshore, although this arrangement has yet to be properly tested); and a lack of honesty in its original testimony before the committee. Called out by the Duihua Foundation, the company looked incompetent at best and complicit at worst.
The situation handed Lantos and his fellow congressman, Chris Smith, an opportunity to pressure China regarding human rights. China’s disdain for media freedom makes the fate of journalists headline news, while internet firms suffer from the weight of expectations placed upon the internet itself and from the cloaks of idealism that many wrapped themselves in.
Political motives don’t diminish the awfulness of what happened to Shi and Wang, nor do they excuse Yahoo’s mistakes. Shi’s jailing is a tragedy, and Lantos and Smith are right to pressure US internet companies to be mindful of the compromises they make in China. But they are wrong to paint the firms’ involvement in China and submission to China’s censorship regime as intrinsically scandalous.
China isn’t in stasis. Over three decades it has bestowed increasing prosperity and freedom upon its people and the internet has become very much a part of that. Living proof of the evolving environment, in the form of the lively third annual Chinese Bloggers Conference, was on display in Beijing just two days before Yahoo’s grilling.
For American firms to participate in this process is wondrous and positive. But it is also fragile. Foreign companies won’t be allowed to operate in China if they are seen to be providing secure communication for dissidents. Drumming American internet firms out of China in the name of human rights will accomplish little except to reduce the choices available for all Chinese users.
That does not, however, mean that foreign internet firms are guaranteed a bright future here. The grand irony of Yahoo’s situation is that their business in China was a crushing failure. After long struggles, the company ceded control of Yahoo China’s operations to online marketplace operator Alibaba in 2005. Although Alibaba is soaring, Yahoo China is today little more than a search engine with a minuscule 2.3% market share.
For American legislators to pressure American internet firms out of China would be to heap tragedy upon tragedy. But for Chinese users to decide they are irrelevant is just business.