Nicholas Kristof: China and Yahoo

Kristof was the NY Times correspondent in Beijing during the TS demonstrations, and has been a passionate critic of China’s policy of jailing reporters and doling out harsh sentences for…well, for nothing at all. His condemnation of Yahoo is the strongest I’ve ever heard and is bound to infuriate “certain other bloggers.” I’m still semi-neutral on that matter, as I’ve read so many conflicting reports, I have to admit to serious confusion.

China’s Cyberdissidents and the Yahoos at Yahoo
Published: February 19, 2006

Suppose that Anne Frank had maintained an e-mail account while in hiding in 1944, and that the Nazis had asked Yahoo for cooperation in tracking her down. It seems, based on Yahoo’s behavior in China, that it might have complied.

Granted, China is not remotely Nazi Germany. But when members of Congress pilloried executives of Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems at a hearing about their China operations on Wednesday, there were three important people who couldn’t attend. They were Shi Tao, Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun, three Chinese cyberdissidents whom Yahoo helped send to prison for terms of 10 years, 8 years and 4 years, respectively.

Only Mr. Shi, a Chinese journalist, has gotten much attention. But Chinese court documents in each case say that Yahoo handed over information that was used to help convict them. We have no idea how many more dissidents are also in prison because of Yahoo.

It’s no wonder that there’s an Internet campaign to boycott Yahoo, at But it’s a mistake to think of all the American companies as equal sinners, for Google appears to have done nothing wrong at all. Here’s my take on the four companies:

Yahoo sold its soul and is a national disgrace. It is still dissembling, and nobody should touch Yahoo until it provides financially for the families of the three men it helped lock up and establishes annual fellowships in their names to bring Web journalists to America on study programs.

Microsoft has also been cowardly, but nothing like Yahoo. Microsoft responded to a Chinese request by recently shutting down the outspoken blog of Michael Anti (who now works for the New York Times Beijing bureau). Microsoft also censors sensitive words in the Chinese version of its blog-hosting software; the blogger Rebecca MacKinnon found that it rejected as “prohibited language” the title “I Love Freedom of Speech, Human Rights and Democracy.”

Cisco sells equipment to China that is used to maintain censorship controls, but as far as I can tell similar equipment is widely available, including from Chinese companies like Huawei. Cisco also enthusiastically peddles its equipment to the Chinese police. In short, Cisco in China is a bit sleazy but nothing like Yahoo.

Google strikes me as innocent of wrongdoing. True, Google has offered a censored version of its Chinese search engine, which will turn out the kind of results that the Communist Party would like (and thus will not be slowed down by filters and other impediments that now make it unattractive to Chinese users). But Google also kept its unexpurgated (and thus frustratingly slow) Chinese-language search engine available, so in effect its decision gave Chinese Web users more choices rather than fewer.

Representative Chris Smith, who called the hearing and drew the Anne Frank analogy, has introduced a bill to regulate Internet companies abroad, but that’s an overreaction. For, as Mr. Anti noted in his own critique, the legislation would just push out foreign companies and leave Chinese with rigidly censored search engines like Baidu.

That said, American companies shouldn’t be abjectly surrendering. Microsoft could publish a list of the political terms that it blocks as “prohibited language.” Google could post a list of all the Web sites it blocks. They can push back.

In any case, the tech companies are right about a fundamental truth: the Internet is a force for change in China. There are already 110 million Internet users in China, and 13 million bloggers — hugely outnumbering the 30,000-odd censors.

China’s security forces try to filter out criticisms, but they often fail. A study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School found that China managed to block 90 percent of Web sites about the “Tiananmen massacre,” 31 percent of sites about independence movements in Tibet, and 82 percent of sites with a derogatory version of the name of former President Jiang Zemin. In other words, some is stopped but a lot gets through.

So think of the Internet as a Trojan horse that will change China. Yahoo has acted disgracefully, but the bigger picture is that the Internet is taking pluralism to China — and profound change may come sooner rather than later, for unrest is stirring across the country.

It’s the blogs that are closed that get attention and the cyberdissidents who are arrested who get headlines, just as in America it’s the planes that crash that make the evening news. But millions of Chinese blogs and podcasts are taking off, and they are inflicting on the Communist Party the ancient punishment of “ling chi,” usually translated as “death by a thousand cuts.”

The Discussion: 8 Comments

Well, crap, anybody have an extra G-mail address? Maybe it’s time for me to make the switch…

February 19, 2006 @ 12:03 am | Comment

I’ll definitely join the boycott and spread the word.

February 19, 2006 @ 12:11 am | Comment

Other Lisa,
Send me an email if you really want to move – I’ve got loads of spare invites.

February 19, 2006 @ 8:14 am | Comment

China’s Cyberdissidents and the ‘Gang of Four’

Peking Duck has Kristof’s column on China’s Cyberdissidents and the Yahoos at Yahoo in full, and AsiaPundit provides the commentary: kristof on the ‘gang of four’, by Myrick, AsiaPundit: Via Peking Duck, who has helpfully republished an un-linkble New …

February 19, 2006 @ 11:54 am | Comment

Kristof proves his hack credentials once again by not reading ESWN’s translation of the Li Zhi case documents. Our old buddy Adam Morris is blogging again and noted that things haven’t changed since he took a hiatus:

“First of all, as ESWN shows us, Yahoo’s email records were actually submitted in an attempt to show that the dissident had been set up”

But it might cramp some people’s agendas, methinks, to point out Reporters Without Borders was Chinese illiterate on this one or that the media has blown a sloppily reported story into a full blown false narrative.

And Kristof… I always thought he was an idiot. His book, China Wakes, half sucks. Everything his wife wrote was way more interesting. And his paranoia throughout the book is really funny if you read the last paragraph of this speech from 2001. And apparently no one ever told him that buying slaves does nothing to discourage the slave market, or that baiting Bill O’Reilly is really just handing him free money.

Kristof is a moron.

February 19, 2006 @ 1:14 pm | Comment

I mostly agree with Dave; Kristof has disappointed me time and again and I wonder why he was made a columnist.

February 19, 2006 @ 4:42 pm | Comment

I personally don’t like Kristof, but he’s the only journalist I’ve read that has clearly stated the facts about Google. What isn’t anyone responding to the legitimate fact that THERE ISN’T ANY LESS ACCESS to information through You can still access it in China, with the same web pages revealed as in the US. Of course, some websites will have dead links, but ONLY BECAUSE the Chinese government had personally banned those sites years before. has not touched any site!

I think Yahoo’s actions, but especially Cisco, is the most deplorable. However, I am dismayed when people don’t get their facts straight. Understand the difference between Yahoo and Google.

Ask yourself these questions:
1. Was there a service before, let alone one that was uncensored? (No)

2. Are there any sites through not available in China now that previously was not available as well? (No again)

Maybe people just can’t seem to spell. Here’s a lesson: NOT

February 19, 2006 @ 10:26 pm | Comment

He also said it was maddeningly slow.

Whether is available intact or not, the fact remains Google made an arrangement to censor its content. Period. I know, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve never advocated a boycott and I see the reaction among the right-wing bloggers as hysterical and ignorant. But the fact that Google made this deal has changed its persona, perhaps forever. Now, whether that is justified or not is another conversation. But the fact that the world’s perception of google has been altered is indisputable.

February 19, 2006 @ 10:44 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.