Tibet: Google's window to show ethical leadership & cease contribution to China's cultural genocide
Sunday, April 23, 2007
Google, China, and Genocideby Oxblood Ruffin
When content filtering targets a race of people for purely political reasons, and an American company provides the technology to enable that filtering, then it's time to shame the enablers. To date, Google has been criticized solely for providing China with the means to censor the Internet. But a tragic consequence of Google's collaboration -- and one that has been entirely overlooked -- is its contribution to the cultural genocide of the Tibetan people.
Cultural genocide is a scandalous charge. But what exactly does it mean? Raphael Lemkin, a legal scholar, was the first to use this term in 1933. Mr. Lemkin had some expertise on the topic both as an intellectual and as a Holocaust witness. According to Lemkin, the term means the "deliberate destruction of the cultural heritage of a people or nation for political or military reasons." Since no recognized academics dispute that "historic Tibet" has been subject to government-sponsored population relocation programs, creative map-drawing, and wholesale destruction of its cultural institutions, then by definition cultural genocide has taken place.
No Tibetans were consulted when the United Kingdom and China signed a series of imperial documents agreeing to divvy up Tibet according to their own interests. According to the People's Republic of China, suzerainty trumped sovereignty, especially when the occupied territory [Tibet] was weaker and its location was strategic in relation to one of China's historic adversaries [India]. It was also convenient that Tibet was rich in natural resources and had enough vacant real estate to absorb millions of migrant Chinese nationals.
And so began the physical genocide. In 1950, the People's Liberation Army "peacefully liberated" Tibet, something akin to saying that Adolf Hitler was a good friend of European Jewry. From 1950 to date, 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of mass slaughter, imprisonment, or starvation; 7.5 million Han Chinese have migrated into historic Tibet, now appended to Sichuan, Yunan, and Gansu provinces, and the more recently chartered province of Qinhai; over three thousand Buddhist monasteries have been razed and their cultural properties destroyed or plundered; and iconic religious leaders -- the recognized figureheads of traditional Tibetan culture -- have been forced into exile, imprisoned, executed, or kidnapped.
Cultural genocide is subtler than physical genocide -- its tools are less obvious. So now China can extend its dilution of Tibetan culture into cyberspace with expert assistance. Google has agreed to filter out every aspect of Tibetan life that the Chinese government finds offensive, leaving only propaganda, misrepresentations, and outright lies about Tibet and Tibetans. It's amazing. The Tibetan people spent thousands of years developing their history and culture, and Google managed to make it disappear in little more than a year with only a few algorithms.
Ever since Google announced that it would deploy its emasculated server farms into Mainland China, the search giant's collaboration with Chinese censors has been widely criticized by the human rights community, free speech advocates, and the United States Congress. Although Google claims to have consulted with many nameless NGOs before deciding to export its censorship technology to China, it failed to take anyone's advice not to proceed. Google apparently knew better than its critics. Google even took the step of hiring someone from the Council on Foreign Relations to improve its public image with respect to corporate responsibility and geo-strategy. Regardless, Google's arguments for continuing to capitulate to Chinese demands are misplaced, self-serving, and uninformed. They are also a threat to Western security interests.
Google repeatedly argues two points in favor of its appeasement policies. First, Google claims that it must obey Chinese law in order to do business in the country. Second, Google claims that it is better to provide expurgated search-related information to the Chinese people than none, the cultural genocide of the Tibetan people notwithstanding.
To Google's point of complying with the law, this argument is both specious and spurious. Because something is legal in one country does not mean that it should be countenanced elsewhere. In some countries, it is legal to have sex with children. Fortunately there are domestic and international laws on the books that encourage more normative behavior. Hiding behind a "when in Rome" way of doing business is unacceptable.
Likewise, Google's claim that it is better to provide some information than none is illogical and dangerous. In a country that has the fastest growing Internet user-base in the world, in which bandwidth is subsidized and the government is facilitating access for all, most of the population is not even trying to avoid censorship. Given that the Chinese government uses the Internet as a propaganda tool and that nationalist impulses among Chinese citizens can't always be controlled, a censored Internet is not only a danger to the Tibetan people but a threat to international stability as well -- although Google doesn't seem to be very concerned about this.
Google's argument for "engagement" has been around since the days of Apartheid. During the Reagan years, corporations began banging the "constructive engagement" drum. The beat went something like this: "Sure, we don't like what's going on with these poor black folks, but if we set up shop here, then they'll make money, and there will be political reform, and eventually Apartheid will crumble." No one but predatory capitalists supported the concept of constructive engagement. Nelson Mandela certainly didn't support it, nor did other mainstream South African leaders. It did, however, dawn on one American business leader that Western companies could make a difference in South Africa along other lines. Rev. Leon Sullivan, a board member with General Motors, drafted the "Sullivan Principles," a code of conduct for human rights and equal opportunity for companies operating in South Africa.
The Sullivan Principles were adopted by hundreds of corporations doing business with South Africa. Some companies threatened to leave South Africa while others did in fact leave. These acts of corporate responsibility, bolstered by public opinion and Congressional prodding finally caused Apartheid to crumble. The specifics of South African Apartheid and censorship in China are not alike in every way, yet the fundamentals are similar. And even though Google is accused of collaborating with the Chinese government on cultural genocide, there will never be justice for Tibetans without a shared improvement in human rights for the Chinese people. Censorship harms both, although one more than the other.
Google has made a horrible mistake in judgment. It has sold out the Tibetan people, censored the Internet, made a mockery of free speech, and placed Western security interests at risk. Google can continue its maudlin tap dance of regret, or it can stand up and do the right thing. The right thing would be for Google.cn to suspend operations. Google doesn't need any more meetings with human rights groups and ethical investors, and it needn't continue pretending that its neutered existence in China is making a difference to anyone other than its own shareholders. Any short-term loss to the company's profits would be more than made up for in an internationally reinvigorated Google brand. And it could always re-enter the Chinese market if the government agreed to meet Google at least half way.
It would only take one prestigious IT company to put the government of China on notice and create a chain reaction that could, in time, benefit Tibetans and Chinese alike. Google has a unique opportunity to match its technical innovations with ethical leadership. It can respectfully assert its values to the government of China and curtail some of its operations. In the long term everyone will be better off, especially China. One would like to believe that Leon Sullivan would have supported this approach. He knew the difference between good and evil, and he knew what to do about it.