In his inauguration speech last week, President Clinton said: "Our hopes, our hearts, our hands are with those on every continent who are building democracy and freedom. Their cause is America's cause."
The biggest challenge in making this statement more than mere rhetoric will be China. And this will be the year of China, as all eyes focus on the Chinese government's July 1 takeover of Hong Kong, one of the world's most free and vibrant cities.
China looms large in every dimension, as the world's most populous country, one of the world's oldest civilizations, the fastest-growing economy and the biggest threat to human rights and democracy.
For the high-tech industry, China represents a unique challenge. The market for high-tech goods and services in China is doubling every year, and this year computer manufacturers expect to sell 3 million computers there. The prospect of capturing the Chinese market makes every Western businessman and businesswoman salivate, especially because of the near-saturation of many high-tech markets in industrialized countries.
And the enthusiasm of the Chinese for information technologies is reaching feverish levels: Bill Gates' book, "The Road Ahead," is now the No. 1 bestseller in China, just as it was in the United States last year.
But the Chinese government is dedicated to controlling citizens' access to "foreign" ideas, including information about democracy, freedom, the independence of Taiwan, the occupation of Tibet and other subversive concepts that Chinese authorities have dubbed "cultural rubbish."
As more and more American companies begin to participate in the Chinese market, grave questions arise about what activities are appropriate, given the abysmal Chinese record on human rights and the successful government campaign to quash dissent following the demonstrations and massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
As one significant example, a large Santa Clara, Calif.-based computer networking firm, Bay Networks Inc., is about to launch a multimillion-dollar joint venture with the Chinese government to build a countrywide intranet called China Wide Web. Five cities will initiate this network next month--Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenyang and Guangzhou--with 50 more cities planned.
What does it mean to have a countrywide intranet in a nation as large as China? According to one Bay Networks spokesman, Tim Helms, it will entail "security and filters" managed by network "firewalls," or devices and software used to control access to the Internet.
The Chinese government already censors the Internet and closely monitors Internet access. All Internet users--estimated at 40,000 to 70,000 people, with 7,000 to 10,000 in Beijing--are required to register with government offices. Many Web sites are banned, not only those containing pornography, but also those featuring material on Chinese human rights, Taiwan independence and protests over Chinese activity in Tibet.
Chinese Communist Party officials understand that access to the Internet is essential to a modern economy.
"With its China-wide coverage and bilingual nature, the China Wide Web will accelerate the pace at which Chinese enterprises can advance to the new frontier of international electronic commerce," said Juber Chu, Bay Networks' manager for the greater China area.
Chinese citizens who can access the Internet are an exclusive class of government-approved entrepreneurs, academics, researchers and government functionaries. They have to play by the rules: All Internet service providers must sign a pledge not to "harm the nation" or to offer access to banned sites. Without government sanction, the plug gets yanked. One state-approved chat group in Beijing is even dedicated to how best to invade Taiwan.
Free-speech and human rights activists in the West would like to believe that the development of the Internet in China is a good thing that will inevitably help spur the free expression of ideas. Yet that notion is based on the myth that there is a dissident class in China that's urgently wishing to communicate with the outside world, said Robin Munro, director of Human Rights Watch/Asia, based in Hong Kong.
"In fact," said Munro, "there really isn't much of a dissident community left in China." Since 1989, the Chinese government has jailed nearly every dissenter, and those who are left are marginalized and outcast, light-years away from receiving Internet access.
Munro says his organization doesn't recommend that democratic activists use e-mail anyway.
"It's too easy for the government to monitor, and if they were to use encryption technologies they would be immediately suspect," he said.
The real human rights issue in China, argues Munro, is whether or not foreign companies, particularly American computer and software firms, are selling technology to the Chinese government that will enable it to tighten its grip on society.