Writing in Shanghai in the 1930s, China's great essayist Lu Xun(魯迅) once observed: "Today there are all kinds of weeklies. Although their distribution is not very wide, they are shining in the darkness like daggers, letting their comrades know who is attacking the old, strong castles."
Muckraking broadsheets in the first half of the last century played cat-and-mouse games with Chinese government censors, ultimately helping to expose the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government and contributing to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) victory in 1949.
If this sounds familiar, it is because the CCP never forgets its history -- and is determined to prevent history from repeating itself. Thus, China's rulers acted in character last December, when they cracked down on news organizations that were getting a bit too assertive.
The editor and deputy editors of Beijing News, a relatively new tabloid with a national reputation for exposing corruption and official abuse, were fired. In protest, more than 100 members of the newspaper's staff walked out.
Most Chinese might not have known about the walkout if it hadn't been for Chinese bloggers. An editorial assistant at the New York Times, Zhao Jing (趙京), writing under the pen name Michael Anti, broke the news on his widely read Chinese-language blog. He exposed details of behind-the-scenes politics and called for a public boycott of the newspaper, evoking strong public sympathy for the journalists, which was expressed online in chatrooms and blogs.
Zhao's blog wasn't under the direct control of the CCP's propaganda department. It was published through a Chinese-language blog-hosting service run by Microsoft's MSN Spaces. On Dec. 30, Zhao's blog disappeared. Since then, Microsoft has confirmed that its staff removed the blog from an MSN Internet server, citing the need to respect Chinese law when doing business in China.
Microsoft's contribution to Chinese political repression follows Yahoo's role in the sentencing of a dissident reporter and Google's decision not to display search results that are blocked by what has become known as the Great Chinese Firewall. Indeed, China has developed the world's most sophisticated system of Internet censorship, thereby hiding information unfavorable to China's rulers from all but the most technologically savvy. The system is bolstered by human surveillance carried out not only by government employees but also by private service providers.
Some liken Microsoft's behavior to IBM's infamous collaboration with the Nazis. Human-rights activists in the US are calling for legislation that would prevent US companies from engaging in business that helps regimes stifle democratic movements.
But the companies argue that there is absolutely no other way to compete -- they must either comply with censorship or stop business. If MSN Spaces did not censor its Chinese blogs, Microsoft argues, the Chinese firewall would simply be programmed to block Chinese Internet users from accessing its service.
In fact, most international blog-hosting services are blocked in China, which provides a competitive boon to several hundred domestic blog-hosting services. These services, with names like Bokee.com, Blogbus.com and Blogcn.com, all comply with Chinese government censorship requirements. Software prevents users from posting politically sensitive words, and provocative content that gets past the automated controls is frequently removed. These businesses would not be allowed to exist otherwise.
Despite the censorship, the Chinese blogosphere is blossoming, with probably somewhere between five and 10 million active blogs. The Chinese public has grown expert over the years at finding plenty of things to do and talk about while avoiding politically dangerous issues. Chinese bloggers are no different. New pop culture celebrities are emerging online, and people are creating their own radio and even TV shows.
Naturally, the Chinese companies that provide most of the tools used to create and host this content have censorship built into their software, management structure and business models. But most Chinese bloggers accept this as part of the reality of life in China. They are not willing to fight for greater freedom of speech and are even willing to censor each other in order to preserve what they have.
Which brings us back to China's greatest modern writer, Lu Xun. In 1921, he wrote a biting piece of social criticism, The True Story of Ah Q, about a hapless character who adjusts his values to whatever the circumstances and the people around him seem to demand.
Unfortunately, faced with a choice between protecting the long-term interests and human rights of their customers and complying with laws implemented by unelected powerholders, technology firms like Microsoft, Yahoo and Google seem to have embraced the Ah Q spirit. They have made it clear that when it comes to free expression, their priorities lie on the side of surrender.
In the long run, this does not bode well for their global reputations, which depend on users' trust in the openness and independence of their products and services. One day, perhaps, censorship will no longer make good business sense anywhere.
Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Beijing bureau chief for CNN, is a research fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
To our readers: Because of the Lunar New Year holiday, from Saturday, Jan. 21, through Sunday, Jan. 29, the Taipei Times will have a reduced format without our regular editorials and opinion pieces. From Saturday to Tuesday it will not be delivered to subscribers, but will be available for purchase at convenience stores. Subscribers will receive the editions they missed once normal distribution resumes on Wednesday, Jan. 25. The paper returns to its usual format on Monday, Jan. 30, when our regular editorials and opinion pieces will also be resumed.