Why Apple was right to comply with China’s censorship demands

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Over the weekend Apple removed software from its Chinese App Store that enabled iPhone users to get around censorship laws in that country. The action was widely portrayed as a blow to those working for freedom and human rights in China. And it seemed especially tawdry following as it did the recent death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo while in Chinese custody.

But I would argue that Apple did the right thing. My intention is not to write a love letter to Apple, whose leadership, I’m sure, was motivated more by commerce rather than by conscience. Nevertheless, Apple’s decision was a welcome example of Americans’ dealing with the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be. Our values are not everyone’s values.

Typical of Apple’s critics is New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, who couldn’t understand why Apple would back down so quickly after successfully fighting the FBI’s demand last year to provide a software key to a terrorist’s iPhone — and, thus, to all other iPhones as well.

“When Apple took a public stand for its users’ liberty and privacy, the American government blinked,” Manjoo wrote. “Yet in China over the weekend, when faced with a broad demand by the Chinese internet authority, it was Apple that blinked.” Yes. But what Manjoo was describing was not situational ethics on Apple’s part. Rather, it was the difference between the United States, a free country ruled by laws, and China, a repressive authoritarian state. In fact, as Manjoo conceded later in his column, Apple would likely have accomplished nothing by pushing back against Chinese officials.

China may show little respect for the rights of its citizens, but it is part of the world community. It makes sense to ban interactions with pariah regimes such as North Korea and Syria, and to prohibit companies from doing business in China in a way that leads to the direct persecution of citizens (something that could in fact arise from Apple’s plan to build a data center in China) or that involves prison labor. But we have no more right to impose our vision of free speech on China than, say, Canada does to insist that we adopt its immigration policies as a condition of doing business.

Besides, even most Western democracies do not have as expansive a view of free speech as we do — yet no one seems to find it outrageous that we accommodate ourselves to their laws when doing business overseas. In the early days of the commercial web, Yahoo was fined $15 million for violating French hate-speech laws that prohibited the display and sale of Nazi memorabilia. Such laws would be regarded in the United States as an outrage against the First Amendment. But of course Europe has a history with hate speech that, so far, we have been fortunate to avoid.

More recently, Google has had to contend with “the right to be forgotten,” as European Union countries — again led by France — have passed laws requiring that certain types of private information be removed from the internet. To comply, Google has set up an “EU Privacy Removal” form that lets users fill out a questionnaire about offending material.

As an online columnist for The Guardian from 2007 to ’11, I had to contend with British libel laws several times. My editors told me that some of my media and political commentary had to be toned down even though it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in this country. Indeed, at one time it was common for plaintiffs to engage in “libel tourism,” filing suits in the U.K. because they were more likely to win there than in the U.S. Reforms have made that less of an issue, but it is still far easier to win a libel suit in London than in New York. The difference is that, under the First Amendment, speech about public officials and public figures is protected except when it is egregiously and deliberately false.

All of this, I realize, is rather far afield from the oppression and violence experienced by anyone in China who refuse to conform. These examples do show, however, that American businesses see nothing abnormal about adapting their practices to other countries’ laws and traditions, even on fundamental values like freedom of expression.

In 1940 Sen. Kenneth Wherry, a Nebraska Republican, cast an eye toward China and declared, “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.” It was a naive view of American exceptionalism then, and it is expressed today by those who think we can use our economic leverage to bend China to our will.

We can’t, and Apple’s executives recognize that. Despite its repression, China today is freer than it was when Richard Nixon made his historic visit. We can hope that it will be more free in the future. By engaging with the Chinese on their own terms, we might be able slowly help that process along.

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The Internet and the future of Chinese journalism

Wu Nan

Wu Nan, a Chinese journalist who’s spending the academic year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, compares investigative reporting in China to “playing a video game” — negotiating the system is like finding your way through a maze, and it takes “wisdom and courage” to avoid the obstacles that keep popping up.

“On the other hand,” she told Northeastern students on Thursday, “it’s very addictive.”

Wu showed a video report she produced on black-lung disease suffered by Chinese coal miners, and discussed stories ranging from the outbreak of SARS to a train crash in Shanghai last summer in which a microblogger pushed government authorities to step up their lifesaving efforts.

“They had to admit they’d made a mistake,” she said.

Wu also said the sheer size of the Chinese Internet — 420 million Internet users, 270 million mobile phone users and 250 million users of Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter — gives her hope that the government will limit its efforts at censorship. The half-dozen or so largest Internet companies are one-fourth the market value of Apple, she said, and the government is dependent on the tax revenue they generate.

Those remarks were accompanied by a PowerPoint slide that was optimistically titled “Online Media: Too Large to Control.”

Wu earned a master’s degree in journalism at the University of California in Berkeley, and also spent three years as a news assistant in the Boston Globe’s Beijing bureau.

Asked about the difference between reporting for the Chinese media and for the Chinese edition of the Wall Street Journal, where she has also worked, she responded that in China, reporters always lead with policy, whereas at the Journal, the rule is to lead with an anecdote. But, she said, “the essence of journalism is the same.”

Three must-reads on the Mike Daisey meltdown

The blog semi-hiatus continues this week. But I do want to break my silence long enough to recommend three must-reads on the matter of Mike Daisey, the lying liar who bamboozled the public radio show “This American Life” about Apple and China, and was brought down last week:

You can listen to Ira Glass’ remarkable interview with Daisey here.

A few thoughts on China’s dwarfism theme park

Billy Barty and Midgets of America gather in Reno, Nev., in 1957.

There’s a fascinating story in today’s New York Times about a theme park in China that stars people with dwarfism. Sharon LaFraniere writes that the park, the Kingdom of the Little People, is controversial because it depicts dwarfs in demeaning roles. And there’s no doubt it’s jarring to modern Western sensibilities. But I’m not sure it’s really that simple.

For one thing, it’s clear from the story that, for people with disabilities living in China, the Kingdom of the Little People is a pretty good gig. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Many performers said they enjoyed being part of a community where everyone shares the same challenges, like the height of a sink. “Before, when we were at home, we didn’t know anyone our size. When we hang out together with normal-size people, we can not really do the same things,” said Wu Zhihong, 20. “So I really felt lonely sometimes.”

For another, I think those of us involved with the dwarfism community sometimes tend to forget the reality of the not-too-distant past. Gary Arnold, spokesman for Little People of America, is quoted as saying, “I think it is horrible. What is the difference between it and a zoo?”

Arnold’s point is well-taken, to an extent. Yet LPA was founded by an actor, the late Billy Barty, and the group originally came together in the late 1950s under a banner that read “Midgets of America” — something that would provoke protests today.

Moreover, a number of people with dwarfism, including intelligent, successful people who are LPA members in good standing, have exploited their unique features to get work in the entertainment business. And movies like “The Station Agent” remain the exception.

In the last few years we’ve seen the mainstreaming of dwarfism, due in large measure to television series such as “Little People, Big World” and “The Little Couple.” As I’ve written before, I think such shows are, overall, a positive. Yet we’re kidding ourselves if we think they’re not on some level exploitive as well. Who would sit on the couch and watch average-size, non-dysfunctional (my Gosselin caveat!) families go about their daily lives?

Finally, you’ll note that I did slip in the word “dwarf” even though Arnold is quoted as saying that some find it offensive. Unlike the M-word, on which there is universal agreement as to its offensiveness, the notion that “dwarf” is offensive is not a mainstream view within LPA, although Arnold is right that there are those who don’t like it. But it is a word my daughter uses, and I am not offended.

You didn’t think I was going to close this out without flogging my book, did you? Here you go.

You will also note, when you look at the photos that accompany the Times story, that one of them is the same picture that was hilariously misidentified yesterday as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Citizen journalism in Tibet

Global Voices Online is tracking the protests in Tibet, which, according to the New York Times, comprise “the most serious and prolonged demonstrations in Tibet since the late 1980s, when it suppressed a rebellion there with lethal force that left scores, and possibly hundreds, of ethnic Tibetans dead.” (Note: Photo depicts a 2006 demonstration in Oxford, London, England.)

Interestingly, what’s coming in via Global Voices — an international blog-aggregation project begun at Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society — is not all pro-independence by any means. Example:

When those insane dalais gathered in the street today and surrounded and viciously beat those Han Chinese, while they used lighters to light fire to shop after shop, while they threw molotovs at cars parked on the sides of the road, I really felt afraid, and that this is inconceivable. What you are destroying is the very place that you live in. Aren’t you followers of the Living Buddha? You think this is something your Living Buddha instructed you to do, to destroy the very place that you live in? I think that most of these people haven’t thought about this, and that most of them have been deceived by the words of certain people who would see the motherland split! But if you just think about it, just who was it that made Tibet the developed place it is today? Who set up the bridge between Tibet and the whole world? And who is it that sends qualified people each year from every sector to educate the children of Tibet with knowledge and culture? AND who is it that sends aid from every developed city in the motherland each year to assist Tibet? I think you seem to have forgotten all this……

It could be legitimate, it could be propaganda. But there’s no doubt that many ethnic Chinese live in Tibet, as the Chinese government has encouraged internal migration in order to keep the Tibetan independence movement in check. By this estimate, about 100,000 of the 2.2 million people living in Tibet are Chinese, not counting soldiers and police officers. So despite the Dalai Lama‘s message of peace, reports that Tibetans are attacking Chinese seem credible.

The Times is putting out a call for citizen journalists.

If this keeps building, we’re going to see whether the Age of the Internet is more powerful than the Age of Fax. In 1989, the Chinese democracy movement — fueled in part by mass-circulated faxes — came to a horrifying end in Tiananmen Square. The Internet, though, is a significantly more powerful organizational tool.

The Chinese government can try to shut it down, and it may succeed. That’s what the Burmese government did last year. But now, even more than in 1989, the whole world is watching. And Chinese behavior would seem to be constricted given that it’s hosting the Olympics this summer.

Photo (cc) by nic0, and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.