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China, still winning against the Web

IT wasn't so long ago that the Internet was seen as a trap for China. The country desperately needed to foster economic growth, and in the early 1990's much of the globe was plugging itself in.

Sooner or later, the thinking went, China would have to plug into the Web, too, and however efficiently its leaders might have controlled information in the old days, they would be no match for this new democratic beast, decentralized and crackling with opinion and information from the four corners of the earth.

Things didn't exactly turn out that way.

Last week, Microsoft was still defending itself for having acquiesced to Chinese demands over the New Year's holiday that it shut down the MSN Spaces Web site of a popular Beijing blogger, whose postings had apparently run afoul of censors.

Reporters Without Borders, a group based in Paris, protested, calling on corporations to adopt codes upholding the free flow of information and, short of that, recommending that Western governments take action. Anti-Microsoft opprobrium electrified the blogosphere, and Congressional hearings may be in the offing.

The company said it was simply facing reality. "Microsoft does business in many countries around the world," said Brooke Richardson, a group product manager for its MSN division, in an e-mailed statement. "While different countries have different standards, Microsoft and other multinational companies have to ensure that our products and services comply with local laws, norms and industry practices."

Microsoft was only the latest technology company to be criticized for cooperating with the Chinese government. Yahoo, Cisco and Google have all been accused of helping to maintain what the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a Congressional investigatory body, has called "the most sophisticated Internet control system in the world."

Of course, it's hard to blame American companies for a repressive apparatus that long predates Bill Gates, or to dismiss the reality that China's proficient hardware and software developers, hosting services and Nasdaq-traded Internet companies - Netease, Sina, Sohu - are quite willing to cooperate with the government on their own. It's also fair to suggest, as many American executives do while insisting on anonymity for fear of angering their Chinese clients, that while their companies must toe the line to maintain access to a lucrative market, the liberating promise of the Internet still applies. It will bring about change in the long run, the executives and free-market advocates insist.

"Our best hope for political change in China is a growing middle class that is tuned in and economically independent," said Dan Griswold, a trade policy expert at the Cato Institute.

But human rights activists remain skeptical.

"When is 'the long run'?" said Julien Pain, head of the Internet desk at Reporters Without Borders, which tracks censorship around the world. "Because I don't see the impact of Microsoft over there. The situation is not improving. Microsoft is behaving just as a Chinese company in China would."

The company, Mr. Pain continued, just wants "a piece of the cake."

And it's a mighty big cake.

The American Internet population is reaching saturation levels, with roughly 203 million users, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a market research firm. China has the second largest online population in sheer numbers, about 103 million users, by the country's official statistics, but that represents less than 8 percent of 1.3 billion people. In the first six months of 2005, China added almost 10 million new Web users.

"Clearly it's a two-edged sword," said Allen Miller, the senior vice president for global affairs of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group representing dozens of companies. "On the one hand, it is a wonderful market and everyone wants to jump into it, and on the other, it's a bit of a threat."

China's leaders were savvy about their Internet strategy almost from the moment they began permitting global connections in 1994. Rather than trying to tame the Web through sheer technological derring-do, they instead created a multilayered regime of filtering and surveillance, vague legal regulations and stringent enforcement that, taken together, effectively neutralized the Internet in China.

In September, Beijing issued additional overarching rules forbidding bloggers to post information that is "bounded by law and administrative rules" or that "creates social uncertainty."

Mr. Pain's group lists 62 "cyberdissidents" imprisoned around the world for their activities online; 54 are in China.

American companies are at best ignoring this grim situation, human rights advocates say, and at worst helping to entrench it.

Cisco provided much of the hardware forming the backbone of China's Internet. Last fall, it was revealed that Yahoo had given Chinese authorities the name of an anonymous Chinese e-mail subscriber who had distributed a message about Tiananmen Square. He is now serving a 10-year prison term.

Google and Yahoo both censor some results on Chinese versions of their products, and the MSN blog tool in China prevents phrases like "Dalai Lama" and "human rights" from being used in the title for an entry.

"While this is a complex and difficult issue," Ms. Richardson of MSN said, "we remain convinced it is better for Microsoft and other multinational companies to be in these markets with our services and communications tools, as opposed to not being there."

But technology companies "need to be better corporate citizens," said Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican who is vice chairman of the House International Relations Committee.

"They should at least be neutral, but I would hope they would actually be on the side of fundamental human rights," said Mr. Smith, who plans to hold hearings on the topic in early February and has called for legislation that would toughen rules for doing business with repressive regimes.

"You're talking profit versus someone's loss of freedom," he said.

Mr. Miller of the technology trade association said it's simplistic to suggest that the calculus is ever that cold. "I don't think any of these decisions are made in a vacuum," he said.

So is one American business, or even the American economy in general, more important than the life of one Chinese dissident?

"Well, that's the question," Mr. Miller said. "And reasonable people are going to come down on different sides of that question."

Date posted: January 15, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 13