- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Big tech — Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Cisco — has been summoned to House hearings this week to explain its actions on China. The hearing was triggered by Google’s decision to censor search results as directed by the Chinese government as the price of operating there.

No explanations will be good enough. Subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, has said: “It is astounding that Google, whose corporate philosophy is ‘don’t be evil,’ would enable evil by cooperating with China’s censorship policies just to make a buck.”

Other reactions are similar, as Google and its China-cooperating confreres are roasted by an outraged press and blogosphere.

Some reflection is in order, about the companies, China, the West and the nature of democracy. The companies’ acquiescence, however painful, is the right thing to do, not for the sake of money but for the long-term cause of the rule of law, economic development, and democratic legitimacy.

To start, it is simplistic to assume Chinese censorship policies qualify as “evil.” We may disagree with, or even abhor, specific government tactics, but we should respect their overall task. The Chinese simultaneously are undertaking several of the most difficult tasks a nation can attempt. They are loosening the grasp of an authoritarian regime; fostering rapid economic development; and evolving the proper form of government for a huge population of widely varying sophistication and skill in the technological age, in view of China’s history and culture.

They have no model for this enterprise. To a Chinese leader, the assumption all China need do is copy the West would be amusing if the issue were not so serious, because democracy in the West has some serious problems.

In Europe, and to a lesser extent in the U.S., it is entirely possible democratic processes will freeze the national economies into a pattern where the united constituencies of political incumbents, government employees and dependent classes (including opportunistic corporations) siphon off an increasing chunk of national wealth, smothering initiative and investment. Since the West refuses to recognize it might have a problem, it is not even thinking about solutions.

Further, the West censors speech and thought that question these developments. Campaign finance reform laws are serious efforts to suppress opposition to control by the incumbent political class. Much outlawry of “hate speech” and affirmation of political correctness can be viewed the same way.

To compound its problems, the West, especially its press, seems to have adopted a sound-bite theory that democracy equals plebiscites on everything, often by opinion poll. In fact, stable democracy depends on a complex interlayering of different types of governance applicable to different situations, with the types appropriate to the decisions and interests involved. Restraints on ochlacracy are vital, including restraints on Congress as a mob.

Should a Chinese leader dedicated to his people’s welfare buy into the West’s problems? Not likely. So what should he do to nurture economic development and perhaps political maturity?

He might well focus on perestroika above glasnost. Move cautiously. Avoid any threat of losing control to demagoguery and mob rule. Develop the rule of law before an extended franchise. And keep maneuvering in a fantastically complicated internal political situation.

If one accepts this would be a very rational Chinese view, what should the tech companies do? They should do what they do, which is tech. In the end, software, hardware and search engines will contribute to China’s economic and political development. The working out of this story will be one of the great tales of human history, for tragedy or triumph.

But no one should even want the tech companies to try to decide which government policies are legitimate, or dictate what the Chinese leaders should do to promote development and democracy. Advocate and advise: Fine. Boycott: No.

Indeed, congressional demands that tech take on a supervisory function are a symptom of the West’s weakening mental grasp of the basic concept that effective democracy requires that institutions and organizations, including both legislatures and corporations, maintain a strong sense of fitness and restraint as to their proper roles.

James V. DeLong is a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation. This article represents his own opinion.


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