The Architecture of Repression

Instapundit cites to an article by Dave Kopel which describes how U.S. technology companies are assisting the Chinese Government to oppress its people and crush free speech.

Too often libertarians defend this collaboration with tyranny because they apparently believe either that (1) private businesses should be allowed to do anything which is profitable, or (2) technology is per se liberating and that the Chinese government’s attempt to be repressive will inevitably be futile. The first is a moral judgment I disagree with, the second is a prediction based on historical evidence which I also disagree with.

Neither of these rationales can justify American firms creating and installing for a profit what Kopel accurately calls the “architecture of repression.”

If Ma Bell had installed phones in Russia during the Cold War, and in the process helped the KGB wiretap the Russian people to round up dissidents, there would have been howls of anger. What is happening now is no different.

China today is not as bad as the USSR was, and we do not want or need a new Cold War against China. But when the Chinese government behaves oppressively Americans should not make excuses for it, or worse, profit from it. They should complain about it, loudly and publicly. If this embarrasses the Chinese government, good. When someone does reprehensible things, public disgrace may be a way to stop or limit the conduct. If this means that the Chinese will retailiate in some way, so be it.

Assisting the Chinese Government to create a state-of-the-art tyranny does not hasten the day when China will be a “normal” country which allows basic human rights like free political speech. Establishing principles and insisting that they be met will work much better.

Why this is not provoking more outrage is an interesting question. Business-minded Republicans don’t want to do anything which will risk trade with China. Why liberals say little about such bad behavior is less obvious. Possibly it is simply that opposing China in any way is a position which is associated with the hawkish wing of the GOP and with the religious right, so by a process akin to magnetic repulsion, liberals cannot bring themselves to protest human rights abuses in China too often or too loudly, since to do so they would be have to be seen agreeing with people they hate.

Nonetheless, I hope we will see more activism to publicize, protest and punish this disgraceful conduct by private businesses as vendors to tyrants.

(We had a good argument in the comments to this post on this very issue.)

20 thoughts on “The Architecture of Repression”

  1. Pingback:
  2. Sorry if this is a bit OT, but for those of you here in Chicago (I don’t think they’re strict about letting anyone in):


    First Dutch Lunch of the 2005-2006 Season

    All luncheons will be held at 12:00 noon at the University Club

    76 Monroe Street, Rooms A & B on the 8th Floor.

    No RSVP necessary.

    MONDAY October 3, 2005

    Judge Richard A. Posner, Yale College 1959

    ‘The Judicial Confirmation Process & Judicial Philosophies’

    Judge Posner will speak about both the local and national judicial system – including recent nominations of Supreme Court Justices.

    Judge Posner was a scholar of the house at Yale, first in his class at Harvard Law School (1962) , and has been a professor of Law at the University of Chicago since 1969. He was Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit from 1993-2000. He is the author of numerous books, and articles on Law, Economics, Intelligence and the Problems of Jurisprudence. Judge Posner also is active in civic and legal association in Chicago and writes weekly commentaries on policy issues published in “The Becker-Posner Blog”

    Future Dutch Luncheons will be held on the second Monday of each month November 2005 through May 2006.

  3. MTW, again, the fact there are workarounds or whatever does not make what they are doing OK. Selling surveillance technology to tyrants, even if it works less well than advertised, is still wrong.

    Elambend, I’ll let it slide this time, but generally, way off-topic comments get deleted.

  4. In sum, the govt has to step in and control the greed of individuals for the general good of the nation. Asking that companies and individuals think of the greater good is simply not effective.

  5. After I commented on the previous posting, I was trawling the Beijing Olympic website, spotted all the logo’s of these very large American and Japanese ‘sponsors’ of the same Olymics, and managed to e-mail queries to about three-quarters of their Execs, regarding their approach to be in cahoots with a bunch of Communists! I received three replies, the best of which came from Coca-Cola, and an extract from their reply went thus:-

    ” Our belief is that job creation and economic growth encourages the development of civil society. Therefore, we believe our investment is in the best interest of the people of China.”

    In essence, ‘we want to do business, and whether things change for the better or not, this is where the money is!’

    Some ethical investment!

  6. I am boykotting Yahoo due to their cooperation with Chines authorities in revealing the identity of a journalist.

    Re the liberals silence on China: Didn’t Al Gore receive a lot of campaign finances from the Chinese? Or did this allegation turn out to be wrong or exaggerated?

  7. From the standpoint of whom is it not OK, Lex? From the standpoint of the American Government, Security Services and Military, it is fine. As for corporations, it is also fine. Of those workers in the relevant industries, it is fine.

    If we are doing this, and I suspect and hope and pray that we are, we are building out their infrastructure of repression at the long run expense of their own regime.

  8. “From the standpoint of whom …” From the standpoint of the people arrested and imprisoned for exercising free speech, who were identified with the assistance of American firms. The long run will be very long indeed from inside a Chinese prison.

  9. From the policy maker’s standpoint, how do I calculate their social and psychic costs against the benefit to our country? I don’t see what obligations we have to them if it means that we’re thoroughly penetrating the very foundations of their national infrastructure.

  10. From the policy-makers standpoint, how do I calculate the cost to our country of having our firms be the supplier of critical equipment to the Chinese equivalent of the KGB and the Gestapo? How much does it hurt America to cynically make our professed love of freedom and all the other airy-fairy stuff that comes out of Bush’s mouth into a lie and a joke? God Almighty gave everyone deep in their hearts a love of liberty, he says, misty-eyed. But, whenever any American company can make a nickel helping some tyrant stamp that love freedom into the floor of a dungeon someplace, why, then our love of capitalism has to take priority, right? Is that it? Moreover, you say, if some tyranny someplace is going to really crack down on its people, we should sell them the equipment to help them do it, so we can see what they are doing while they bring the boot down, right? How about we decide not to support and assist tyrants, and take the risk that it will be harder to spy on them if we do.

    Anyway, I have no reason to think these private firms are cooperating in any serious way with the US government or its efforts to spy on China. That would be bad for business. Too risky.

  11. Lex – can you provide some facts (let’s leave God alone for a while for he could care less how many Chinese are suffering under the Godless tyrants) on how many people have been put in Chinese Gestapo chambers because Yahoo and Coca-Cola have been selling them products?

  12. Sulaiman, I am sick of the dishonest way you conduct these conversations. I did not mention Coca Cola. Coca Cola is not a technology company. Read it.

    As to God, I was quoting Bush, our president, as you can clearly see if you read what I wrote, but you chose, again, to ignore what I wrote and respond to a straw man. As to your theology, it has nothing to do with my post, so I won’t bother with it. I already know you are a militant athiest. Constantly making an issue of it when it is off-point is childish and annoying. As to me having to prove to you that anyone has been arrested by the Chinese government for exercising free speech in China, read the news, it is commonplace, it is business-as-usual over there. I cannot say for sure that Yahoo’s conduct has caused anyone to be arrested yet. I don’t think the Chinese police publish statistics on how they track down dissidents, or the marginal contribution of American tech firms’ products to the effectiveness of their tyranny. Perhaps Yahoo will publicized the number of political prisoners who were arrested using its equipment as an advertising point when it sells surveillance technology to other dictatorships in the future. As to why it is wrong to help the Chinese cops arrest people for exercising free speech, it is very simple. Free speech is a human right. Preventing someone from exercising it is morally wrong, evil. If you facilitate evil conduct, if you provide the means to carry out evil conduct, if you make evil conduct more pervasive and effective, if you make it worse, if you profit from it, you are complicit in it.

  13. Lex – I find it equally offensive that a bunch of militant religious fanatics like yourself have hijacked God for narrow political goals. Your absolutism in international relations – seeing everything in black and white and strutting the stage as only your values were right – will NEVER EVER be put in practice by any American administration for they have to deal with reality of a bigger world than the narrow echo chamber that you live in. Neither does your religious zeal allow you to understand the point that I was trying to make about the role of commerce in softening totaltarian regimes, i.e. Coca-Cola. Where was the outrage of blind religious fanatics when American business was in cahoots with a bunch of fascist dictators around the world throughout the Cold War? Is it OK to buy crude oil from Saudi Arabia, a regime that financed the ultimate faith-based initiative — 9/11, but not OK to deal with the Chinese who are trying to open up to the world?

    Please do NOT confuse God with established religion, institutions that maximize profit through fraud.

    -“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
    – Galileo Galilei (there is no historical dispute on how the Church treated GG when he threatened their power base).

  14. Lay off the vituperation. You’re wasting my time with your flame war.

    A corporation can’t act ethically. A corporation is not a person. The leaders of a corporation can only act as ethically as their stakeholders will let them. The inital response of any business leader is going to be to pursue profit. That’s what their stockholders pay them to do. And if they fail to do that, they are punished.

    Other stakeholders are less directly involved in the corporations day-to-day behavior than the stockholders (through the market). But they can become involved.

    As was hinted about above, public outrage could push the U.S. government to try to do something to modofy Yahoo’s behavior. China bashing is popular at the moment and it could happen. But the operative word would be try. A single government’s ability to control a multi-national acting in another country is quite limited.

    More likely, but still unlikely, public outrage pushed Yahoo to modify it’s behavior for PR purposes. A little, maybe, somewhat. Don’t hold your breath.

    I agree that what Yahoo is doing is wrong. But given the political climate and the rules of the market, its behavior is rational. That’s all the market demands. Like it or not.

  15. You should recall we recently just fended off an attempt to give government bureaucrats the ability to ‘regulate’ political speech right here in the home of the internet. Now the technology companies are field testing new means and methodologies to actual do that in another country. Doesn’t it give someone a pause that if successful, these domestic companies will be soon displaying their skills and products to various members of our own government with the line that they’re proven and effective. Kill the process before it can even take hold now or face the threat yourselves all too soon in the near future.

  16. Sulaiman, I will disregard most of that. My big problem with your comments is not that you have strong feelings or think I am nuts, or a religious fanatic, or live in an echo chamber, etc. My problem is that you don’t read what I actually say before you respond. As to “strutting the stage”, this blog isn’t much of a stage, and if were to strut on a stage I’d prefer to look more like this. Now that is strutting the stage.

    Jon, I disagree with your essential point, which seems to be that corporations have to maximize profit so they cannot have moral culpability. Corporations are legal fictions composed of human beings. There are all kinds of things they cannot do that might maximize profit, usually where a law intervenes. Also, where someone sees wrongdoing going on they have no excuse to merely say “I was following orders” or “my shareholders expect me to do this”. I do think that public outrage will have only a small impact, however. But, better that than nothing.

    Don, this is exactly the kind of thing I am worried about.

    I wonder if anyone knows: What were the rules on this kind of trade with the USSR during the Cold War? Were any restrictions in place?

  17. A company lives and dies by its stock price. That stock price is set by the market. If a bad PR event happens to a company, the fall in the sahre price is not the result of the morality of the event. It’s set by investors’ judgment of the impact on customers perceptions.

    When doing business in the US or Western Europe, a company can make hay with feel-good PR. On the flip side of the coin, they get badly hurt by an attentive public when they do something that the majority of the public deems immoral.

    It makes sense for a company’s leadership to factor the appearance of morality into their planning.

    Nine days in ten, nobody here in the States or Europe (a Western company’s shareholder community) is paying any attention to what is happening domestically in China. There is no reason to spend on PR nor is there usually any reason to avoid something that we might consider immoral. Nobody is watching.

    On the other hand there are extremely good business reasons for investing in China. The folks here at home love it if the share price is boosted by inroads into that mighty untapped market.

    I have no dount that other companies are doing things that would make us cringe to get in on the deal.

    If Yahoo execs had balked at doing this, what would have happened? Say they quit: Their replacements would have been just as tempted to sin to win. Say they didn’t quit: They would have lost their foothold in China, someone else would have made the deal, Yahoo would have suffered, and they would have been fired. Not officially. Not specifically for that, but they would have been just as gone.

    The great difference between whatever rules there were on business in the USSR versus China is that China is an engine of the world economy not a straw giant.

    Yahoo couldn’t thumb their noses at the Chinese government. The truth is the U.S. government can only do so much thumbing either. Our two countries are locked in a suicide pact of currency reserves and uncontrolled debt. Even if some legislators get outraged, it won’t make it into law. If it does, we might rue the sword we have chosen to fall on.

    The only hope, is that consumers get personally outraged and punish Yahoo personally. But the U.S. public just isn’t paying that much attention.

    It makes me feel slimy to write this, but I think it’s the way things are for the time being. I’m not arguing for what should have happened or what people should have done, just mapping out whay it did happen and why it will happen again with another company.

  18. Where is the line, Jon. And I ask this with no sarcasm. What product would a US company draw the line at? Is there anything? Probably not.

    If you read about the way rubber was harvested in the Congo in the early 20th Century, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and the imposition of brutal slavery, solely to get cheaper rubber for tires, and despite a certain degree of public outcry, you realize that there really is nothing that a competitive enterprise will not do for money. In China there are many other things that may even be worse. For example, non-Chinese firms use prison labor, and non-Chinese firms turn in their employees who are then forced to have abortions.

    Businesses are not moral agents, and they will do whatever they can get away with.

  19. “If I wanted to hang capitalists, I’d be able to find a capitalist who would sell me the rope.”

    Or words to that effect, and still true.

    V.I. Lenin

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