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Washington has been abuzz about a book with the title “Game Change,” in which two political reporters provide all kinds of hot details about the last presidential campaign. But a life-saving “game changer” may actually have presented itself online, on the book’s publication date. That’s the hope of New Jersey Republican congressman Christopher Smith, a longtime human-rights crusader who has been trying to bring attention to the plight of the prisoners in theLaogai, labor camps run by the tyrants in China. And the “game changer,” he says, is Google’s discovery that the e-mail accounts of dissidents in China on Gmail have been hacked by the Chinese government, putting the lives of some courageous people in peril.
Google, which has been in China since 2005, willingly censors its search engine — in compliance with Chinese law — and refuses to talk about what exactly it censors. But if you try Googling “Tiananmen Square” from an Internet café in Beijing, you will find picturesque images. If you Google “torture,” you will learn about the Japanese during World War II and, naturally, George W. Bush and Guantanamo Bay. Smith tried all this when he was in China shortly before the Beijing Olympics. The typical Chinese with some curiosity, who is not satisfied with the propaganda that the government is producing, is going to happen upon the same. Searches for democracy, human rights, or Tibet leave the curious Google searcher in China lacking a lot of important information. Meanwhile, the government will know what he searched for.
In response to the disclosure that dissidents’ e-mails had been hacked by the government, Google is now considering pulling out of China. This would be the responsible thing to do.
Congressman Smith doesn’t boast that he told them so — but he did tell them so. He doesn’t brag that he’s offered, and gotten cleared by committees in the House of Representatives, legislation that would keep American companies from making too many deals with the devils of dictatorships. He doesn’t see Google or other American companies’ doing business with China or any other country as the enemy; he even wants to help them — as he protects human lives.
In February 2006, Smith chaired the first congressional hearing on China’s abuse of the Internet with the willing collusion of American Internet companies. The hearing, which lasted eight hours, included representatives of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco, and Congressman Smith scolded them for a “sickening collaboration” with Beijing’s tyrants — accusing them of helping in “decapitating the voice of the dissidents.” It was a dramatic hearing, during which the late Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California who headed the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, told the Internet technology executives: “I do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.”
If Google didn’t believe the congressmen, they have evidence before them now that ought to change things. Right in their Gmail accounts.
The fruits of Smith’s tireless human-rights watchdogging was the introduction of the Global Online Freedom Act. Smith believes that “information technology can and should be used to open up commercial opportunities and provide people with access to vast amounts of honest information. It should be a means of personal freedom, exploration of knowledge and communication, not a weapon to oppress people.” He argues that dictatorships need two fundamental “pillars” to survive: propaganda and secret police. Misuse of the Internet supports both of these.
Smith is encouraging Google to pull out. And he wants the Global Online Freedom Act to be brought to a vote. It’s passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the Energy and Commerce Committee, but it’s never been to the House floor. Smith reintroduced the bill in 2009 and has now urged the Democratic House leadership to bring his bipartisan bill to the floor for a vote. “U.S. companies should have no role in political censorship,” he insists, and the U.S. Congress should make that the law.
Also pushing for the legislation is Wei Jingsheng, who knows Chinese prisons all too well. He also understands how unscrupulously manipulative the Chinese regime can be: He was released from prison (after 14 and a half years) in 1993, when China thought it might get the 2000 Olympics. When the Olympic bid failed, he was rearrested. He tells me he wants the Chinese people to be able to search the Internet because knowledge is, in fact, power. And, in case Google executives try to put the best spin on the Chinese government’s hacking, he says, make no mistake: “The purpose” of the government spying on these dissidents “is to destroy them.” Google is “causing more danger to the people in China,” Jingsheng says.
But, like Smith, he doesn’t mean to scold or otherwise sit in judgment. Really, he’s simply pleading, armed with this new evidence, the reality of dictatorships, and his own history with this one. Addressing Google and “the many other companies” in its position, he says: “You tried to accommodate” China. And so, “you compromised. But the more compromises you made, the more aggressive the Chinese government would become. You must not compromise anymore. You have to cut off that relationship.” He adds: “I really think the best way to protect those companies is to pass the legislation and this legislation would protect them from the violations of the Chinese government regime.”
Wei Jingsheng, now in the U.S., represents those back in his native land whom we cannot hear from — whom we may never hear from, if the regime there has its way. Congress can, and should, stand with them.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.
Copyright 2009, Kathryn Jean Lopez. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.