Monday, February 20, 2006

To paraphrase philosopher Sam Johnson, “a member of Congress preaching is like a dog walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Take the hearing last week by the House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations. Chairman Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, summoned four Internet companies doing business in China to atone for alleged complicity in freedom-of-speech sins practiced by the communist government: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems.

Google had permitted political censorship of its search engine results. Yahoo provided information leading to imprisonment of Chinese dissident journalist Shi Tao. Microsoft’s MSN had removed a prominent blog renowned for championing democracy. And Cisco sold Internet hardware that the Chinese government uses in surveillance of its online population.

Mr. Smith accused the companies of a “sickening collaboration” with a repressive government that was “decapitating the voice of the dissidents.” Rep. Tom Lantos , California Democrat, pontificated: “I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.” And Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, lashed corporations for successfully lobbying a Republican-controlled Congress to grant China permanent normal trade relations in 2000.

But the sanctimony was absurd. If the companies had negotiated with the Chinese government with the intent of influencing its censorship policies that have generated disputes with the United States, they would have committed a federal crime. Congress prohibits private parties from meddling in U.S. foreign diplomacy under section 953 of the criminal code.

Moreover, some information is better than no information. A book with one page censored is better than no book at all. If a member of Congress were invited to speak on human rights in Beijing with the exception of Tibet, acceptance would be preferable to silence.

Suppose Google had washed its hands of any business in China. Its 19 percent market share of the search engine market would be captured by search engine competitors like Inc. — companies more inclined to bow to censorship demands. Google’s good would be sacrificed on the altar of the perfect.

In any event, Congress routinely levies taxes on citizens who support policies they may find morally abhorrent, for example, the war in Iraq or the boycott of Cuba. Private secretaries of state are verboten. A taxpayer who sought to protest by nonpayment would be sent to prison. The Internet companies did nothing wrong or irregular in taking their lead from the foreign policy of the United States toward China.

Indeed, they acted in the same moral universe as the United States in choosing engagement over nonengagement notwithstanding China’s glaring human-rights warts.

International relations are a landscape of moral chiaroscuro, not of saints and sinners. The United States allied with Stalin during World War II despite the dictator’s nauseating killings of tens of millions and the Hitler-Stalin pact. President Nixon embraced Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung to check the Soviet Union. Mao’s responsibility for a staggering 80 million deaths was overlooked. Japanese Emperor Hirohito was spared prosecution before the Tokyo war crimes tribunal for political reasons. The United States retains snug relations with Saudi Arabia to keep American motorists happy. Moral scruples over Saudi Arabia’s religious bigotry and widespread human rights violations are subservient.

At present, U.S. foreign policy toward China is no less ambiguous than the business policies of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft or Cisco. Congress and the Executive Branch regularly criticize China’s human-rights record and repression in Tibet.

At the same time, thicker economic ties are saluted. As James R. Lilley, ambassador to Beijing under President George H.W. Bush, told The Washington Post last year: “Economics is the main thing now. Democracy for China? Don’t hold your breath.”

There is certainly a line to be drawn by private companies and the U.S. between moral squeamishness and moral squalidness. Selling cyanide for Adolf Hitler’s extermination chambers is different than selling newsprint or video cameras for China’s censored media. Messrs. Smith, Lantos and Rohrabacher erred and blurred sensible debate in conflating the two.

If the three believe their moral preachments, they should sponsor legislation prohibiting U.S. companies and U.S. foreign policy from directly or indirectly assisting political repression. Their sermonizing should be aimed at fellow members of Congress and the White House with the power and responsibility for enacting the measure.

Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer and international consultant with Bruce Fein & Associates and the Lichfield Group.

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