During much of the 1990s, the debate in the West over whether to trade with China, given the government's record of human rights abuses, usually focused on which approach would most likely lead to the country's liberalisation: engagement and trade, or isolation and sanctions?
Proponents of free trade argued that the flow of goods and information would lead to a freer, more open society. The clincher, they often said, would be the blossoming of the Internet, which was then seen as the one thing the Chinese government would not be able to control as the country sped into the future. In fact, it was assumed that no authoritarian regime was safe from the liberating power of the Net. . .
Fast-forward to the present day. In China, many Web sites are blocked. So are certain pages, and sometimes e-mails cannot be accessed. Western and Chinese portals, together with local Internet service-providers, have signed self-censorship pledges. Internet cafes monitor and, if necessary, report the surfing habits of their patrons. A recent study by the Rand Corporation said at least 25 dissidents have been arrested in the past two years because of their online activities. In short, the government has largely succeeded in doing what so many thought impossible: controlling the Internet within its borders.
How did this come about? In myriad ways, really. Through the use of cutting-edge technology, the powerful lure of the largest telecom market in the near future and, at the local level, good old-fashioned intimidation. But technology experts and human rights officials say it could not have happened without the help of Western firms, especially telecommunications technology makers, which they say have traded equipment for market share.
"The dotcom boom in China was knowingly built on the repression of its people," said Greg Walton, a researcher for the Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democracy and an expert on telecom technology and Internet censorship in China. "[The technology companies'] image in the 1990s was kind of anarchic and freewheeling but in reality they were after huge profit margins."
Mr Walton and others say Beijing itself probably developed the more sophisticated Net filtering technology employed in recent weeks. But he said it would have been impossible for it to do so as quickly without the help of Western technology suppliers in years gone by.
The names of those companies are the biggest in the business. Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Microsoft, Websense and Sun Microsystems have all played a part, experts claim.
According to Mr Walton and others, Cisco's Internet routers and firewalls first helped the Chinese government monitor e-mail and other packets of data; Microsoft proxy servers have been used to block Web pages; Sun has helped the government compile a nationwide fingerprint database; and Websense has contributed to sophisticated Internet monitoring and filtering techniques.
Meanwhile, Western portals such as Yahoo! have agreed not to post any information that might be offensive to the government. These companies' contributions to China's security infrastructure have not been limited to blocking Web sites either.
According to a Rights and Democracy report, the Chinese government's goal is a "database-driven remote surveillance system" encompassing the Internet and a nationwide closed-circuit television (CCTV) network.
Nortel, the report said, has played a "key role" towards that end, developing a system whereby surveillance data can be transferred from CCTV cameras along the country's railway network to a centralised point run by the Ministry of Public Security.
Over last year's National Day holiday week, in a trial run, more than 39 "suspected criminals" were arrested at the main Beijing railway station after their faces were matched with an electronic book of mugshots, said Agence France-Presse.
Rights and Democracy also reported that Nortel has worked with Tsinghua University to develop speech-recognition software, and has developed a prototype fibre-optic network in Shanghai with firewalls that will enable the government to track the surfing habits of Net users. [..]
That may change if Rights and Democracy's allegations of Nortel's involvement in surveillance technology in China are true. There is a growing trend towards holding multinational corporations accountable for any degree of complicity with repressive governments in human-rights abuses.
Carol Samdup, co-ordinator of Rights and Democracy's globalisation programme, said there has been increased discussion in recent years about the creation of international legislation and an international court to handle such cases.
The United Nations, meanwhile, is exploring ways to bring corporations under the same umbrella of human-rights laws that apply to states. And in a major development last month, a US federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld US legislation that enables victims of alleged human-rights abuse to sue US-based corporations in US courts. [..]
Ralph Steinhardt, a professor at the George Washington University Law School in Washington and an expert on multinational corporations and human-rights laws, says the ruling should have a significant impact on "boardroom consciousness".
"Multinationals would need to make sure they are not giving assistance to governments violating human rights," he said.
Even if the technology companies' actions in China do not legally amount to rights violations, their role in choking the free flow of information is less than admirable, said Mickey Spiegel, senior Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"You don't want information blocked," she said. "You certainly don't want any group of people not to have access to information. You want citizens who are knowledgeable. That's the issue - that people should have information, that information should cross borders and be available."
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