January 23, 2006 11:46 AM PST
Perspective: Debating high tech's China challengeSee all Perspectives
An abbreviated version of their e-mail exchange follows. For the full conversation, click here.
Thierer: I have been struggling with U.S. corporate engagement and investment in China. In particular, I wonder if greater engagement by U.S. companies will really help achieve meaningful reforms for China's repressed citizenry.
I have always argued that investment by U.S. technology companies could help break down barriers to economic and social freedom. However, reports from the front have not been good. It seems that the Chinese are just as repressive as ever.
We know that American corporate technology leaders have assisted Chinese officials when they sought to repress speech and dissent. Tell me, are you comfortable with this?
Harper: Not really. I was very concerned when I learned that Google had come to an agreement with the Chinese government so that their service would not be blocked there.
But I have come to believe that the best option for a company faced with this dilemma is to accept the ugly conditions some governments put on doing business in their countries.
There is strong evidence that refusing trade doesn't help anybody. The U.S. trade embargo toward Cuba has been a dismal failure.
More importantly, if you give them the technology and communications tools, the Chinese people will evade government controls. You don't have to use words like "Falun Gong" or "free speech" to communicate about liberty and public issues.
Thierer: You make many good points. Nonetheless, change is coming about much more slowly than I would have hoped.
I'm concerned with factors that could continue to hold back or slow this progress toward greater political freedom. Many high-tech companies doing business in China want to see the Chinese government make the business environment more hospitable. Greater intellectual property protection is often at the top of that list.
I'm worried that a silent quid pro quo may be at work here. The firms want stepped-up enforcement against piracy while the government desires to crack down on dissent. Is there an implicit deal here?
Harper: That's a very interesting idea. And it brings me to an important weakness in my support of engagement, even under ugly conditions: The last thing I want companies to do is be effective in their efforts.
In labor relations, there's a protest the labor side sometimes uses called "work-to-rule." Employees punch in and leave exactly on time, follow every safety rule and take their full allotted coffee breaks. Everything is exactly by the book, and productivity goes through the floor.
I'd like to be confident that the companies engaging with despotic governments are working to rule, doing the absolute minimum. But I'm not.
That's why I think objecting to this stuff, as Reporters Without Borders has done, is appropriate. Companies like Microsoft, Google,
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