High-tech firms Fail to Justify Aid to Chinese Oppression

[SOURCE: San Jose Mercury News, AUTHOR: Richard Cohen, Washington Post]
[Commentary] The Internet may be new, but not the issue of whether an American corporation should do business with bad people. Many an American fortune was based on the slave trade or exploitation of the Indians or some such atrocity. According to allegations in a recent book, IBM did business with Nazi Germany and, more recently, a good number of U.S. corporations helped the old apartheid regime in South Africa with its security concerns. Still, the panting willingness of American firms to do business in China has produced a bumper crop of hypocritical justifications. The first one, as noted, is that silly stuff about adhering to local laws. The second is the contention -- the slim hope, actually -- that by helping China with its Internet or whatever, we wonderful Americans are also encouraging the growth of a middle class and a concomitant interest in the writings of Thomas Jefferson. In the meantime, the use of such terms as "human rights" or "Dalai Lama" in the title of a blog entry is not possible with the MSN blog tool. In China, a typo can cost you plenty. Clearly, if the Chinese market were tiny, America's high-tech companies might not be willing to snitch on their customers and help send them to jail. But the market is vast -- an astounding 1.3 billion people, 103 million of them already on the Internet. (The United States, with 203 million users, is about maxed out.) But just as public pressure was brought on American companies that helped South Africa subjugate its own people, so should pressure be brought on the current crop of moral dunces. Corporations are legal fictions, an abstraction that lacks a conscience. The people who run them, though, are flesh and blood -- like Terry S. Semel, Yahoo's CEO. This week he reported healthy gains. Alas, he did not report the loss of a single night's sleep.

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