Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems came under fire at a US House of Representatives hearing on human rights on Wednesday for what a subcommittee chairman called a "sickening collaboration" with the Chinese government that was "decapitating the voice of the dissidents" there.
The statements by the chairman, Representative Christopher Smith, a Republican, opened a much anticipated session aimed at getting an accounting of the companies' dealings in China, and to air criticism that they do business there at the peril of human rights.
Among the chief issues is the alteration of some of the companies' online offerings in the Chinese market -- from search engines to blogging tools -- to conform with the repressive requirements of the government there.
Also of concern is the sale of Internet hardware that the Chinese government has used in surveillance of its online population, as well as the role of US companies in providing information leading to the imprisonment of Chinese citizens for online activity that in the West would be considered free speech.
Representative Tom Lantos, a Democrat, whose own Congressional Human Rights Caucus was snubbed by all four companies when it invited them to speak two weeks ago, had sharp words for the executives on Wednesday.
"I do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night," Lantos said.
But while acknowledging the concerns of Congress and their critics, executives of the four companies were unified in their insistence that their presence in China provides a net benefit.
They also suggested that the US government could do more than companies to promote human rights reform abroad -- a notion that divided members of the subcommittee over where blame lies if companies have gone adrift in China.
Jack Krumholtz, associate general counsel at Microsoft, noted that since the company launched its online service MSN Spaces in China last May, more than 3.5 million Chinese had created Web sites and blogs with it.
However, Microsoft has shut down, at Beijing's request, a popular Chinese blog that touches on sensitive topics such as press freedoms.
Yahoo has been accused of providing information that led to the jailing of two of its Chinese e-mail users, while Google started a Chinese version of its popular search engine that omits links to content deemed unacceptable by the government.
Analysts have said that US tech companies eyeing China's market of 110 million Internet users face a tough dilemma of wanting to tap into an enormous consumer base and following Chinese laws, which give way to the perception they're helping China harass dissidents.
China yesterday defended its right to police the Internet in response to the criticisms aired in Washington.
"It is normal for countries to manage the Internet in accordance with law and to guide its development in a healthy and orderly fashion," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) said. "China has also borrowed and learned from the United States and other countries in the world."
In related news, the official China Youth Daily decided yesterday to restart a provocative weekly section shut down last month, but shunted aside the top two editors who made it a standard-bearer for combative journalism.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials in charge of the China Youth Daily, the mouthpiece of the party's youth wing, bowed to an international outcry and decided to resume publication of the weekly Freezing Point from March 1, the weekly's editor Li Datong (
But Li and Lu Yuegang (盧躍剛), an investigative reporter, will be removed as editor and deputy editor, respectively, of the weekly and shunted to the newspaper's news research office, Li said.
"This exterminates the soul of Freezing Point, leaving an empty shell," Li said.
Freezing Point was closed for publishing an essay by historian Yuan Weishi (
The first edition of the new Freezing Point will publish an essay attacking Yuan, Li said.
The weekly sometimes published investigative reports on corruption and abuses of official power, and commentaries critical of official thinking.
Analysts said these latest acts were part of the CPP's long-running policies to keep news under tight control, even as newspapers and the Internet have mushroomed. And many said no relaxation was in sight.
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