Shi Tao is still languishing in a Chinese prison. But now Yahoo, the company that helped put him there, has to pay something for what they did.
Until November of 2004, Shi was a journalist working for a Chinese business journal. Earlier that year, his newspaper received a message from the Chinese government warning the journal not to run stories on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Shi emailed a copy of this message to an editor at Democracy News, a New York-based human-rights organization. Chinese government officials found out about the email and pressured Yahoo, Shi's internet service provider, to reveal the identity of the email's author. Yahoo did so, and on Nov. 24, 2004, agents of the government arrested Shi in the northeastern city of Taiyuan. He was convicted the following April of revealing "state secrets" and has been in jail ever since. In a similar case, Yahoo revealed the identity of engineer Wang Xiaoling, who had posted pro-democracy comments online about the same time. He suffered the same fate as Shi Tao, but Wang's wife Yu Ling decided not to take this lying down.
After years of delay trying to obtain court documents, Yu Ling filed suit in a California court against Yahoo last April. And last week, Yahoo announced that the suit had been settled out of court, though few details were released other than the fact that Yahoo executives promised they would do "everything they can to get the men out of prison." In a fight between a totalitarian sovereign government and the CEO of one U. S. company, I think it is fair to say the odds are stacked against the company—and any prisoners the company is trying to help.
A lot of engineering ethics involves shades of gray, ambivalent situations, and other complexities. That is not the case here. At stake is the question of whether freedom to criticize one's government is a good thing or not. The founders of the United States believed it was. It is a principle enshrined in the U. S. Constitution and defended to what some might view as an absurd degree today. If it is a good thing in one culture or state, it is a good thing everywhere. That freedom is just as valuable and worth protecting in Shanghai as it is in Peoria.
So what happens to your respect for this freedom if you run a large multinational company eager to profit from the giant potential market that is China? It appears that you agree to whatever compromises with freedom the communist government demands of you, up to and including the divulging of email account holder's identities. Now internet service providers in this country also divulge account names to law enforcement officials from time to time, but only after court orders with regard to what is likely to be truly criminal activity. Posting a blog saying you don't like George Bush will not get you sent to jail here. But as we have seen, doing something similar in China will get you sent to jail there, and Yahoo helped.
Only when one of the prisoner's relatives went to great personal trouble and expense to file a lawsuit against Yahoo did that company even start to act. In the past, and as recently as last week, it has justified its betrayal of Shi and Wang by saying if it doesn't follow the Chinese government's rules, Yahoo's own employees might be in danger. Well, duh! Better our customers go to jail than us. Is this the kind of attitude you want from a company that you do business with?
Rather than admit wrongdoing or even disclose what compensation is involved in the lawsuit's settlement, Yahoo convinced the dissidents to settle out of court for an undisclosed amount plus a promise to do whatever they can to gain the prisoners' release. If I were Shi or Wang, I would not hold my breath.
This kind of thing is what happens when a corporation allows profits to overwhelm its moral sense. The pressure on publicly owned corporations to make the most money while staying just within the bounds of the law is immense. And as someone whose retirement investments include corporate stocks and bonds, I am as much a part of that problem as anyone else who invests money in today's economy. But when that legal- economic principle is allowed to trump all others, you end up with situations in which settling lawsuits for doing heinous things is simply a matter of buying off those you have injured at the lowest negotiated price. That appears to be exactly what Yahoo has done.
If you are expecting me to pull any punches here, I'm not going to. Last week we invited a Chinese graduate student and her husband over for supper at our house. Both of the were born in the Peoples' Republic of China, but in different cities, and they met only last year when he was in his fifth year as a professor of mathematics and she was a new graduate student at Texas State University. They fell in love, got married, and now she is looking for a job. In this country there are no work committees to pass judgment on whether you can marry, what job you can take, where you can live, and so on. I did not discuss with them the reasons they emigrated to the U. S., but I think the answers are obvious.
Leaving one's native land is a terrible wrench, and these young people must have had very good reasons to abandon the land of their birth, learn a difficult foreign language, and excel academically in a strange environment. But it happens all the time. Wouldn't it be nice if stories like this could happen in China too? And some day they may, but only if the government decides to change its ways. And that will happen only when people like Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoling can make their voices heard without fear that a company based in the freedom-loving United States of America will rat on them and help send them to jail.
Sources: A report on the Yahoo settlement can be found in CNN's Asia online edition at
http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/11/13/yahoo.china/index.html. I first commented on this issue in a blog posted here on March 30, 2006.