U.S. Tech Firms’ China Presence Furthers Internet Freedom

On July 9, China renewed Google's license to operate in that country, leading critics to condemn the firm for acceding to China's oppressive policies. But the presence of Google and other U.S. tech firms actually benefits the people of China and helps advance global Internet freedom.

The Google-China saga has repeatedly made headlines since January 2010, when Google announced that hackers in China had breached Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese human-rights activists. In March, after much internal debate, Google shut down its China-based site Google.cn and began redirecting visitors to its site in Hong Kong. Last month, the company reactivated some of its China-based services, though it continues to redirect search traffic to Google.com.hk.

Doing business in China has long posed a dilemma for Google due to the Chinese government's notorious disregard for human rights. Chinese law requires websites operating within the country to censor a broad range of information, such as photos of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. And the infamous "Great Firewall of China" enables the government to surveil Internet traffic and censor information the government considers unfavorable.

While Google does not censor its Hong Kong site, search results are still censored by China's firewall, and Google recently stated that its China-based services comply with Chinese laws.

Human-rights advocates have derided Google and other U.S. tech companies, including Microsoft and Yahoo!, for doing business in China. These critics, such as Amnesty International, argue that facilitating censorship by complying with China's oppressive laws is immoral and unethical.

Such criticism, however principled, misses the forest for the trees. If Google were to exit China, that would mean one fewer American Internet service readily accessible to Chinese citizens and would essentially cede the online search market to the Chinese company Baidu.

Why is this troubling? Because Baidu has a long history of doing the Chinese government's bidding.

Meanwhile, Google has publicly criticized the regime's oppressive practices. Prior to disabling its Chinese search engine, Google highlighted the government's oppressive policies by warning users when search results were being censored. Baidu's site makes no mention of that fact.

Many American businesses operating in China do so begrudgingly. Google, for example, hesitated to enter China until 2005, partially due to human-rights concerns. But American and other foreign firms often repudiate Chinese human-rights violations and sometimes push back when the government has gone too far.

Still, U.S. tech firms operating in China are often attacked by politicians in Congress. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., recently accused Microsoft of "enabling tyranny" in China, while Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is pushing for federal regulation of U.S. companies operating in oppressive nations.

But saber-rattling by U.S. politicians actually emboldens the regime, which plays upon nationalist sentiments to garner popular support and entrench its stranglehold on power. It also undermines the autonomy of private businesses and discourages constructive economic engagement with China.

American firms such as Google, however, are household names in China. These companies are in a far better position to criticize Chinese censorship and are much harder to demonize than the U.S. government.

Yes, China has a horrendous human-rights record. But demanding that businesses operate only in nations that respect human rights is no recipe for spreading freedom. U.S. companies do not enjoy bearing witness to Chinese oppression, but relegating Chinese citizens to the likes of Baidu will only perpetuate human-rights violations.

Disengaging China will not foster political freedom, but commerce between the U.S. and China creates wealth and opportunities in both nations. These opportunities help grow China's middle class, bringing rural subsistence farmers into cities and, thus, closer to the global economy.

For China to become economically and politically freer, a sizable middle class is crucial. While U.S. tech firms may not seem to be improving China's human-rights situation today, their presence will, in the long run, undoubtedly help.