Beijing's collaborators

February 19, 2006

Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who pried open China's closed doors, fended off fears of Western influences among his more conservative peers with a now-famous adage about open doors naturally letting in a few flies. Large parts of the world's largest nation are now thick with McDonald's outlets, Internet cafM-is and all manner of economic ties with the West.

But Mr. Deng's heirs, aided by America's top technologists, have become adept at filtering out such cyber-flies as online references to democracy and human rights.

In one way or another, "Do no evil" Google, "Where do you want to go today" Microsoft and "Imagine all your favorite thoughts on one page" Yahoo all have been aiding China to censor and monitor Chinese Internet searches and communications. In one recent case, Yahoo is accused of giving authorities information that led to a 10-year jail sentence for a Chinese journalist for writing online about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Last week in Washington, the three firms and Cisco Systems, which supplies China with network hardware, got a well-deserved blasting in an overdue hearing on their offshore behavior. Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, labeled it "sickening." Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, called it a "disgrace," and pointedly asked if the companies had any shame.

The companies all said they're struggling with China's censorship demands but only offered little hope that an expanding but limited version of the Internet in China would be a long-term liberating influence. We agree with their assertion that this is a complex and difficult issue, but much more is needed than that acknowledgment.

One likely source of help is greater government involvement - likely from a new State Department Internet freedom task force and from legislation in the works that might go as far as barring technology companies from doing business in nations that don't allow free speech. If they don't want that, they ought to clean up their offshore acts.

To that end, the companies should pay attention to a group of former high-level Communist Party officials who last week released a letter denouncing authorities for recent acts of censorship and calling for the "free flow of ideas." These elders, with much at stake other than money, somehow managed to stand up to Beijing - just the sort of backbone that American firms ought to have.

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