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Dancing with the Dragon

IN the 19th century, Britain ruled the world as the industrial revolution sent steam trains, machinery and textiles all around the globe. For the last 100 years, America has prospered on fast food, cars, and the Hollywood dream, becoming the global super-power trading in weapons, pharmaceuticals and farming.

But now China is at the fore – this is its century to dominate. British consumers enjoy cut-price T-shirts and TVs built on the back of cheap labour, our companies set up shop in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong every day, determined to make a killing in the Chinese domestic market. Selling a $1 product to the 1.3 billion people in China – 24% of them under 14 – would make you not just rich, but mega-rich.

Foreign investment in China is at an all-time high, and the communist regime is overseeing what one academic calls "arguably the most remarkable economic transformation in human history".

The fact that China is a one-party state – and one heavily fortified with police and military apparatus, where journalists can be jailed and bloggers exiled, and where putting up a religious poster can see you beaten and committed to a psychiatric hospital – has sparked criticism that profits have seduced the West into ignoring democratic concerns.

The heat of the economic boom has encouraged corruption and bribery. Officials can take land and houses in midnight grabs from impoverished peasants surviving on less than $1 a day, forbidding journalists from telling anyone about it and punishing those that do. The place where the contrast can be seen most clearly is the one place the world was meant to be able to come together – the internet.

China built surveillance into the backbone of its internet provision. Around 1996, companies such as France Telecom, Deutsche Telekom and US company Cisco were approached to put together China’s first public network for the internet, but meshed into it was the world’s highest-spec filtering system. As well as getting zero results (or politically censored results) for search terms such as "Tiananmen Square", "BBC", "Taiwan independence" or "capitalism", e-mails and blogs with similar terms were also blocked right from the start of the internet revolution by what has become known as "the Great Firewall" of China.

Today, an army of police officers – some estimates say 30,000 or so – work to stop material from appearing online by trawling through e-mails, disabling websites and physically patrolling internet cafés. There are 32 journalists and 50 bloggers currently in prison in China.

Last week, when Google announced it was to launch google.cn which complied with the CCP’s wishes, there was an immediate and global backlash against the company that has built its reputation on its mantra "do no evil". Google says that "in order to operate from China, we have removed some content from the search results in response to local law, regulation or policy. While removing search results is inconsistent with Google’s mission, providing no information … is more inconsistent with our mission."

One blog entry was typical in condemning Google’s decision: "These guys were so cool. Google was nice, clean, simple, smart and honest. But now it’s like … "duh" – they are in it for the money! Do no evil is a joke."

Sharon Hom, executive director of campaign group Human Rights In China, spent last week trying out google.cn in English and Chinese. "There are hits for Tiananmen Square, but they are either tourist pictures or descriptions of 6/4 as an ‘internal disorder’." Hom is more worried about what happens when "Falun Gong", the outlawed spiritual movement, is entered as a search term. "Google.cn actually takes you straight to government propaganda anti-Falun Gong pages. Google.cn is reinforcing the government position, which gives me furious concern."

Yahoo has gone one step further in helping the Chinese authorities jail an internet dissident. In September last year, journalist Shi Tao was given a 10-year sentence after Yahoo passed details of his e-mail address to the Chinese police, who prosecuted him for sending the transcript of a Communist Party meeting. AOL has also been accused of colluding with the Chinese government to spy on its customers; last year Microsoft closed a media chat blog site after a government request.

"Google is a striking example of how Western companies are operating in China," says Julien Pain, of Reporters Without Borders, who call China "the world’s largest prison for journalists".

"In the US, Google was ferocious when the American government asked for details of service users, but in China it is ready to accept whatever regulation the Chinese government wants in order to make a profit."

Pain believes that Chinese government control of the internet is "a revolution".

"For the first time, the internet has been split in two – one a free exchange of views and information, the other a censored version of the world according to the Chinese government. The Chinese have made the dream die for everyone."

There are still tiny gaps in the "Great Firewall" that allow information through. Hom and her colleagues send 280,000 e-mails detailing human rights abuses and corruption cases to Chinese users every week, of which around 200,000 make it through. "When we started three years ago it took the authorities a few days to shut down the site we directed people to, now it is more like two hours. We get feedback like ‘thank you, thank you for telling us what is going on!’."

Google, and the hundreds of other Western companies now in China, will have to compete with home-grown giants like Baidu.com, said to have made its owner Robin Lee, the pin-up of the Chinese business world, a cool £350 million. Hom says that by not offering a skewed service Google may well be within the law, "but how is it going to make a profit? It’s uniqueness is gone if it can only offer the same as Chinese search engines. It has done itself out of some of its reputation and image, and for what?"

For its part, the UK is involved in a three-way relationship with China: a place for British companies to invest, a place where Britain can order cheap goods from and a market for Britain to sell to. The British government spent £33m in 2005 on poverty alleviation projects, supports China joining international agencies such as the World Trade Organisation as long as human rights concerns are met, and supports UK businesses who want to invest there.

Andy Scott, director of international and UK operations for the Confederation of British Industry, says that adopting "a very positive view of China" is the best way forward to ensure an improvement in workers’ rights and perhaps, ultimately, democracy. "China is not a huge, low-cost sweatshop. The key thing for any international company is to ensure that its own operations and supply chain meet the standards it would have in the US or Europe. The challenge is to bring standards up. Foreign investment will do that, it absolutely will."

Scott is pragmatic though about that timescale. "Nobody kids themselves this is going to happen overnight. If the movement towards openness and democracy went backwards in China then I think companies would question their presence there.

"But realistically I don’t think they would pull out, we are part of a global economy. That is the reality Britain is in. We can only try and make things better from there."

The great sticking plaster that governments and companies trading with China apply is the "trickle-down effect" – that observers waiting for freedom of speech and multi-party elections will eventually be satisfied, because democracy is what "everyone" aims for. But academics question whether that is true for China.

"There is a trade off," says Dr Chris Dent, of Leeds University. "The older generation can remember the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and they don’t want to rock the boat politically when things are getting better economically.

"There have been 5000 years of authoritarian governance in China, they are used to that political structure. I think any trickle-down of democracy will be drip … drip … drip … not a sudden ‘whoosh’ of change."

Dr Yikchan Chin of the University of Westminster’s China Media Centre agrees. "Only the academic elite are bothered about democracy – ordinary Chinese people don’t pay much attention to politics. They are more worried about health and wealth, about their local politicians … not the big, national Communist Party."

Is economic prosperity worth sacrificing human rights for? Amnesty International says that China has failed to counter "serious and widespread human rights violations … tens of thousands of people continue to be detained or imprisoned" and are "at high risk of torture or ill-treatment. Thousands of people were sentenced to death or executed, many after unfair trials". One official said last year that 10,000 people a year are executed in China, some for corruption, theft and assault (although that figure was later denounced). China’s Ministry of Public Security admits there were 87,000 "mass incidents" – riots and demonstrations – last year, up 6.6% from 2004, many protests prompted by rising unemployment (the lucrative high-tech sector not being conducive to mass employment). When the US, sensitive of China’s growing economic power, accused China of human rights violations, China was quick to release its own report on America, highlighting "POW abuses in Iraq, rampant violent crimes, severe infringement of people’s rights by law enforcement departments and lack of guarantee for people’s rights to life, liberty and security of person".

Professor Laixiang Sun, chair of Chinese business and management at the London School of Economics, insists that companies operating under censored conditions in China are "totally justified economically – it is a developing market and these companies want to make a profit there. While the criticism is damaging for their image, it won’t hurt business."

Some people are being hurt though. Psychology student Liu Di, 23, spent 2003 in jail after posting sarcastic jokes about China online. New York Times news assistant Zhao Yan was jailed for 10 years in December for an article he’d written on China’s political succession. He was arrested in a restaurant after his mobile phone signal was traced. On Friday, Li Changqing, an online reporter with US-based Boxun.com, was jailed for three years for spreading "alarmist information" about a dengue fever outbreak in 2004.

These cases impact on the rest of society – Holly, 28, is an investigative reporter for a major tabloid newspaper in China, and writes in a self-censoring climate of fear. "My editor-in-chief has just been released from a six-month prison sentence, and the two deputy editors much longer sentences, because they published a story about a young man who was beaten to death by local policemen.

"If they knew I was speaking to you I would be fired. We all do our best to publish as much as we can, but our readers do get very angry sometimes because we print propaganda."

Vincent Brossel of Reporters Without Borders slammed the "turn away" culture of Western governments and private companies who turn a blind eye to abuses.

"Companies are still content to trade with China, make their money, and censor themselves in print and on the internet. The Chinese government is afraid of free information and what reaction it will get, but Western companies are only afraid they will not make a profit."

Date posted: January 29, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 11