Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Google and China

In the brave new world of the Chinese economic boom, western governments and multi-nationals appear nervous to take an ethical stand on issues such as human rights and religious freedoms with such a large (and profitable) trading partner.

The argument given is that by encouraging the spread of free market forces to and within China, the impulse towards corresponding political and religious freedoms will follow and will, in the end, prove irresistible to the Chinese political system.

This view does have some merit. It recognises that this is how democracy took root in western societies - on the back of a booming mercantile and manufacturing economy and an emerging class of entrepreneurs. It also acknowledges the futility of attempting to impose democracy by force - as witnessed in the disaster of Iraq.

Having said that, this softly, softly approach has its limits. When a Western company not only encourages economic reform as a means of assisting political reform but is also complicit in facilitating the oppression that is the essence of the problem, that company has surely crossed a moral line. This appears to be the case with Google's willingness to provide a national firewall around the Chinese arm of the internet.

The Great Firewall of China aims to prohibit China's internet users from accessing certain web sites disapproved of by the communist government. These include sites highlighting human rights problems in China and pro-democracy sites.

In facilitating this firewall, Google appears to have missed an opportunity to do something historically significant - to either pressurise the Beijing authorities to allow cyber freedom or to walk away from a lucrative contract on principle. Failure to do either feels a little bit like the wife of the alcoholic who goes along with her husband's plea for "one last drink" because she has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

No comments: