There once was a time when popular American products and the brands they bore were symbols of freedom for a generation of youths behind the Iron Curtain yearning to be who they wanted to be. Towards the end of the Cold War, Nike sneakers, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Levi’s jeans symbolized the free enterprise possibilities of the West. Tragically, today’s major US brands—mostly tech giants—are willing to aid and abet the Orwellian surveillance apparatus of the world’s largest totalitarian state.
This week, The Intercept revealed Google’s latest secret research and development project, code-named Dragonfly. Dragonfly is a new Internet search engine with the censorship controls of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) integrated directly into the algorithm’s code. Searching terms like “democracy,” “Tiananmen,” or “June fourth” would run the user smack into China’s Great Firewall of online censorship.
The project goals of Dragonfly are a glaring departure from Google’s mission statement: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
In January 2018, Marriott International launched an online survey that listed Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet as countries separate from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Later that month, Nebraska native and Marriott customer care manager Roy Jones used the Marriott Twitter account to like a tweet posted by the activist group Friends of Tibet.
In response to these perceived slights, the CCP’s censorship machine blocked all access to Marriott’s websites by Chinese users. Marriott’s CEO issued a groveling apology, removed the online survey, summarily fired Jones, and resumed business as usual in China.
This seems like a minor incident, but it is only the latest data point in an alarming trend.
Yahoo was one of the first tech companies to cave to China’s state security demands. In 2007, the internet provider turned over the email history of a Chinese dissident journalist, leading to his immediate arrest. Back in 2014, LinkedIn in China censored posts about the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today, even Apple—much-hyped as the first “trillion-dollar corporation”— is caving, too. The iCloud data of Chinese users was previously stored on American servers where search was subject to American due process. However, Apple recently moved Chinese users’ iCloud data to servers in that country—giving the CCP direct access to their data. But that isn’t the most egregious case of an American company abetting mass surveillance.
Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biomedical product development and research company, sold a series of DNA sequencers to the Chinese government. These machines categorize and catalog individuals’ DNA to create databases in which any DNA sample could be matched with a corresponding profile. Human Rights Watch reported that, rather than being used for legitimate medical purposes, Thermo Fisher’s sequencers were being operated by police in Xinjiang province, home to the Muslim and Turkic-speaking Uyghur minority.
Xinjiang is perhaps the most surveilled place on earth, and state security forces are using American biotechnology to build a comprehensive DNA database of a persecuted ethnic minority that at this very moment are being rounded up and sent to “re-education camps” by the hundreds of thousands.
Outside the tech and biomedical sectors, Mercedes, Delta Airlines, and high-end clothier Zara are just a few of the most recent companies make concessions to Chinese censorship standards both inside and outside China. Mercedes, for instance, posted a car ad on its international Instagram account that quoted the Dalai Lama, only to remove it because of CCP complaints.
Why does Big Business continue to aid and abet the CCP’s revisionist agenda both in China and internationally? Why do we keep selling the CCP the rope with which it hangs its people, and when will international corporations realize that they are giving the CCP a platform outside of China?
One-point-three billion people in China cannot openly exercise their right to read free and uncensored material like you are doing right now. But it’s okay, say corporations: if you stay mum on human rights, your coffee machine will be cheaper. China’s appeal is lower production costs for goods manufactured in China and a large market for goods manufactured outside of China. However, because of the social and economic system controlled by the CCP, the cost of Chinese goods is not only material, but human.
Make no mistake: Some of China’s goods are cheaper because they are made by forced labor—slave labor. In 2013, China claimed to close its Laogai, a network of political prison camps modeled after the Soviet Gulag whose purpose was “reeducation through work.” But in April 2017, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission expressed deep concern that the Laogai had simply been rebranded as “rehab facilities,” while forced labor continues to occur.
Outside of Laogai, China’s labor problems persist as a manifestation of the regime’s choices. Apple, Sony, Dell, HP, and Acer all profit from a system of forced unpaid “internships,” where universities compel engineering students to work as assembly line workers for Foxconn and Quanta under penalty of expulsion. Foxconn and Quanta are two of the supply chain companies that assemble iPods, iPads, and MacBooks on Apple’s behalf.
During the Cold War, American labor unions were allies of illegal and targeted labor groups behind the Iron Curtain—recall the AFL-CIO’s dogged support of the Solidarity workers’ movement in Poland. But one wonders who the natural allies of the hundreds of millions of unfree and unrepresented workers in the PRC are today.
In sick irony, Google has recently changed its slogan from “do no evil” to “do the right thing.” Marriott’s latest ad campaign extols the Golden Rule, but I assume none of Marriott’s executives want to be placed in one of China’s dozens of forced labor camps.
These empty slogans and corporate value statements give me all the comfort of the Soviet Union’s 1936 Constitution which on paper guaranteed all the rights of the American one, but in reality was a fig leaf that obscured the deaths of more than 30 million victims of Soviet oppression.
How many victims of the Chinese Communist Party are required before America’s most successful companies wake up to their most basic responsibility to do no evil? When Big Brother and Big Business collude, we all lose.