The name Wang Xiaoning continues to haunt Yahoo. Wang Xiaoning was supposed to be just another of Yahoo's costs of doing business in the burgeoning Chinese market. He was just a name that Yahoo handed over to Chinese authorities which promptly proceeded to do to Wang Xiaoning what China does to its political dissidents. But Wang Xiaoning has come to haunt Yahoo serving as an exemplum of corporate greed at the expense of human lives that is not limited to industrial production but applies equally well to the digital world.
Yahoo is now asking to dismiss the case against them filed under the US Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act claiming it's political. Of course that's exactly the point, it is political. For Yahoo the political was irrelevant except as a way to make some money. For Yahoo business is business and if people are imprisoned, tortured or murdered because of them... it's just part of the cost of doing business. And Yahoo of course can't grasp why anyone should have a problem with such an attitude.
"Free speech rights as we understand them in the United States are not the law in China," Yahoo said in a statement Monday. "Every sovereign nation has a right to regulate speech within its borders."
That is itself a fascinating contention. You might argue that nations do regulate speech within their borders but arguing that they have a right to restrict free speech grants nations more rights than individuals. Can a nation have a right to restrict human rights? That is an interesting paradox and symptomatic of a mindset that prioritizes national rights over individual rights and treats the rights of nations as NOT proceeding from the rights of individuals.
What that amounts to is a kind of "Divine Right of Kings" in which national governments receive the source of their legitimacy from someplace other than their populations. It's a bizarre argument to make in the 20th century but it's one that anti-war activists had been making for Saddam Hussein's Iraq calling it a sovereign country. But can a dictator ever be a sovereign country except in the old meaning of sovereign.
Yahoo filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying it was compelled by Chinese law to hand over information to authorities including user registration information and email content. The suit filed in April by the wife of Wang Xiaoning accuses Yahoo of helping Chinese officials track down her husband and of linking her husband and others to email and online comments. Yahoo was referred to 10 times in the 2003 Chinese court verdict that declared Wang guilty of "incitement to subvert state power" and sentenced him to a decade in prison.
Was Yahoo required by Chinese law to hand over that information? That is particularly in dispute as I believe Wang Xiaoning was not employing a PRC based Yahoo email account. What that really means is that Yahoo handed over information not based on a section of its service in China which means that Yahoo felt that "complying" with Chinese law enabled them to violate the privacy of an account user anywhere in the world. That should be troubling to anyone.
Furthermore Yahoo claiming that they were "just following orders" is really not much of an argument. Law is not morality and corporations are in the end made up of human beings. A corporation that follows a law which causes people to be imprisoned, tortured or murdered for their beliefs is accountable for these crimes, regardless of what the local law says, just as corporations operating in Nazi Germany were morally and legally accountable for collaborating in genocide and war crimes.
"This is a political and diplomatic issue, not a legal one," Yahoo spokeswoman Kelley Benander said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "The real issue here is the plaintiffs' outrage at the behavior and laws of the Chinese government. The US court system is not the forum for addressing these political concerns."
Yahoo spokeswoman Kelley Benander (formerly Deputy Communications Director of the John Kerry for President campaign and Senator Kerry's press secretary) leaves out the moral issue but that is natural both for Yahoo and for a Kerry staffer. She may be right that it's not a legal issue or not. What is legal in China may not be legal in the United States. Imprisoning people for their beliefs may be legal in China and collaborating in it may be praiseworthy but it isn't exactly as popular in the United States. If Yahoo handed over materials from outside its PRC operations, then Yahoo went well beyond the letter even of the Chinese law. Either way Yahoo certainly bears the moral responsibility for its actions, if not the legal one.
Coincidentally or not so coincidentally, Kelley Benander and the People's Republic of China had last coincided during the Kerry campaign when Kelley Benander had to defend Senator Kerry against charges that he took tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from figures in the Chinese military. General Ji, head of Chinese Military Intelligence (the espionage arm of the Chinese military) had passed on 10,000 dollars to Senator Kerry. George Chao-chi Chu, a top Democratic fundraiser closely involved with the Chinese government, had also made sizable donations to Kerry. At the time Kelley Benander had defended Kerry with the following words;
"Mr. Chu has never been convicted of any crime," stated Kelley Benander, a spokeswoman for Kerry's presidential campaign.
The common theme when it comes to China seems to be, if it's not blatantly illegal, we can do whatever we like regardless of right and wrong. Or as Al Gore famously put it when it came to raising money, "There is no controlling legal authority that says this was in violation of law."
Yahoo too feels there is no legal controlling authority, except the Chinese government, which it defers to and its stock price and profit margins, which are its moral guidelines. It knew that the cost of one human life was easily outweighed by the amount of money that could be made by doing business in China. And so Yahoo did business.
Democrats and liberals have conveniently introduced moral relativism, the doctrine of the "no controlling authority" as a poison into the moral bloodstream of the nation, turning morality into something each culture and nation votes on by default and whatever it does, is right. You want to mutilate young girls, go right ahead, if your culture does it, it must be right and we have no right to judge. You want to blow yourselves up in buses, clearly you are so troubled that your moral culture has found no other option. You want to torture people to death, you're a sovereign nation, go right ahead. Of course this doctrine conveniently only applies to the third world and to "progressive" nations, which also makes it perfect for business.
Yahoo knows it can do what it did and walk away from it. The same public furiously outraged over dogfighting driving Michael Vick from the NFL can barely spare a yawn for Wang Xiaoning, after all no dogs or celebrities are involved.
Meanwhile the business culture that embraced China and its utilitarian approach to human rights is finding that the cost is higher than they thought as China produces their goods with as little concern for the end users as for the workers, creating the "Chinese poison train" and the rash of recalls and poisonings using PRC made products. By ignoring human rights in favor of business with China, the process begins with the destruction of American jobs, with the import of inferior and dangerous goods and finally the consumption and the destruction of those same American businesses, as witnessed by China devouring IBM's personal computer branch and now Seagate\Maxtor. And all the while Wang Xiaoning continues to haunt Yahoo.