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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Chinese brutality is immutable

"Chinese brutality is immutable." That is the fundamental (and fundamentally wrong) premise underlying most of the defenses of Google's decision to build political censorship into their Chinese servers. Given the old Spanish prayer that goes (roughly): "God give me the courage to change the things that I can, the strength to endure that which I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference," some people are treating the PRC as that which can't be changed (or like Ayn Rand would say: as "metaphysical" rather than "man-made"). The result is a lapse of justice -- a form of injustice in which good people clench their jaws, shrug their shoulders, then go ahead and do business with known killers.

Last year I posted on this exact moral issue:

The destructiveness of an act of vice is never isolated. A moral transgression drags down everyone and everything it touches, in many different ways -- and it is especially corrosive to those who do not or cannot consciously reject and repudiate it.
It is the Age of Skepticism which makes the failure to morally judge possible on such a grand scale. The daily toleration for millions of acts of vice across the planet would not be possible without the worm of nihilism at the heart of modern culture.

The proper response to dishonesty is always to identify it, fully and honestly. The proper course of action is then contextual -- from a raised eyebrow, to a full public denunciation. There are too many factors to name here. But the principle stays the same in all cases, because the root fact is always this: an act of vice is destructive, so to "go along" with one is to go along with an act of destruction.

Let's make this very clear: the rule and law of the PRC is man-made and deadly, i.e., it can and should be repudiated and thrown out today. The only individuals who have a "right" to observe the rule of murderers for one more day are those who live under it, those who would risk imprisonment or worse were they to stand up to the oppression -- not individuals nor corporations nor governments in other countries.

A "we don't really like doing this" statement, such as on Google's blog, does not negate the moral sanction of existentially collaborating in a dictatorship's programme of oppression. Such a rationalization makes the situation worse, actually, because it confuses the issue.

Today I am wondering if the U.S. government should block U.S. corporations from contributing to the mechanisms of political oppression anywhere in the world. I'm too ignorant of the philosophy of law to convince myself of this, but it seems like it might be right.



  • At 1:19 PM , Anonymous Mark said...

    But Google isn't collaborating in any meaningful sense. They're not helping to oppress the Chinese people. They could not possibly do what they do any more effectively - would become as inaccessible in China as is now. All they've done is provided an effective search for non-political matters, which is doubtless what Google is primarily used for, censorship or none. For those who don't want to be censored, surely there's still, if they can get to it?

    Also, they're not doing business with the oppressors, surely? They're paid by advertisers, not governments. They're doing business in the same country as the oppressors, which is a different thing entirely. If that's wrong, then the right course of action must be to completely isolate China from the outside world, which doesn't sound to me like it would accelerate change. Sorry if that sounds like a bit of a straw man argument, but it's the way it seems to me.

  • At 2:49 PM , Blogger Brad Williams said...

    Mark, I disagree that Google is not helping oppress the Chinese people, because Google is now physically implementing the censorship. You seem to be saying that nothing has changed for the worse with the creation of, but the important change is that it is now Google code written by Google engineers on Google servers that is implementing political censorship. I think Google is clearly culpable for that, I don't see how people can miss it. Google has become part of the censorship machine, whereas before they were not and it was China's "firewall" that did the dirty work. Google did not have to do this. They chose to do it.

    Okay, technically the PRC is not doing business with Google, but it is just like a sales model where the PRC is selling channel access to Google, so in effect they are in sort of a business relationship. The payment the PRC is demanding is for Google to implement their censorship policies.

    I don't know exactly where to draw the line on isolating Chinese businesses from world markets, it is a good question. I do think that if a U.S. company's resources are being used to directly and physically implement rights-destroying policies, then that definitely has crossed the line and should not be done. It's even evil.

    Note that many have expected and hoped for years that doing business with and in China would accelerate democratic reforms, and in fact nothing of the kind is happening, the PRC is quite powerful, and some expect China's economy to be the largest in the world in a few decades. They are powerful because the free world deals with them in business AS IF they were morally clean. This was the point of my post, that it is the putting on of moral blinders by countless governments and businesses over many years that *enables* the PRC to be so powerful and wealthy ... while it remains a dictatorship (fascist now, rather than communist).

  • At 9:47 PM , Blogger Duane Worthington said...

    I agree with you, Brad. In fact, I appreciate your principled stand on this issue.

    As an interesting aside, I think I see a connection between some of the arguments I hear coming from businesses in favor of trading with China and arguments I hear coming from the free music & software sharing crowd (old Napster, Gnu*****, etc.). Notice how the file sharers claim that what they're doing is for future generations, that paradigms must change, the past is not sustainable, the old guard isn't keeping up, etc., when in fact most of this fancy rhetoric really boils down to a very simple idea: "I want to steal software and get away with it." Likewise, businesses say things like, "We can't be competitive without dealing with China, engagement is democracy in action, it's our responsibility to reach out to them, we shouldn't be so rigid, etc." Read: there's money to be made, issues of right and wrong be damned.

    Here's the tie-in between these two, as I see it: Even people who reject ethics as outmoded seem to realize that you shouldn't be evil, so to get around that, they simply have to pretend that what they're doing is Okay. And such people's minds can become incredibly weasily about getting what they want.

    I also think that this delusion of integrity is made easy for such people because of the deafening silence in our everyday culture about simple issues of right and wrong.

    Happily, your voice is ringing out loud and clear from your blog on the side of honesty and integrity. Thank you for that!

  • At 12:30 AM , Anonymous Mark said...

    But in putting that restricting code on their servers, they've actually increased the amount of information available, as well as letting searchers know that their results are being censored by law.

    I still think it's important that Google is providing an alternative - that you can still try to search using (which is available with Chinese text and can be set to return results in Chinese only, even) to avoid the filtering. If that wasn't still as available as it was before, I might very well agree with you, but I think that the fact that is just an alternative that allows the thing to be reliably available, combined with the fact that the censorship is pointed out, makes the issue of whose servers it happens on a much more complicated and far more abstract moral question than it might otherwise appear.

    Your last point makes a lot more sense to me than your others have so far. I'm sure I remember reading that a great many studies have shown that, when sanctions have been taken against countries for such reasons, they haven't worked, but in all honesty my shaky memory won't allow me to put any faith in them, and the situation here may very well be different.

  • At 12:04 PM , Blogger Brad Williams said...

    Duane, good point that a moral issue is a moral issue and on some level everyone knows it, even those who would prefer it not to be.

    Mark, I think we'll have to agree to disagree.


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