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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Gag Orders

Is the work of Cisco Systems and other high-tech companies helping China to crack down on dissent?

By DK Sweet

EARLIER this year, on CNBC, business news junkies were treated to another superlative on-camera performance by one of America's foremost business superstars. Donald Trump may best personify the cheesy pop-culture idea of a celebrity businessman, but to the stockholder class, Cisco Systems' John Chambers is the Real Deal. Compare the income, size, growth and influence of international Internet infrastructure colossus Cisco to The Donald's twice-bankrupt real estate empire and Trump might as well be Chambers' pool boy.

In his cable-news appearance, Chambers took on a few tough questions about the previous quarter's lackluster earnings in his patented smiling Sunday school teacher manner, his responses leaving the host and co-inquisitors about as dazzled as the sober infotainment form allows. They were simply no match for Chambers' immense personal charm and the glory of his gargantuan business accomplishments. This is a man who is highly regarded even by his competitors. What's not to like about the famously thoughtful boss and generous corporate leader?

Well, you could ask Harry Wu. When questioned later what he'd been doing while Chambers was being interviewed on CNBC, the noted Chinese-American human rights activist emailed a terse five-word reply suggesting he, at least, might not be joining the John Chambers Fan Club anytime soon.

It read: "Preparing a lawsuit against Cisco."

Wu gained worldwide attention as an American citizen trying to re-enter his native country in 1995. Detained at the Chinese border when guards spotted his name on a list of foreigners protesting China's pre- and post-Tiananmen human rights abuses, Wu was finally released days later when it became clear to the Communist Chinese government that the international furor over his captivity was only increasing with each day.

To say Wu is a persistent critic of China's police state is putting it mildly. Imprisoned for 15 years prior to the Tiananmen revolt for espousing democracy, emigrating to the United States hasn't softened Wu's implacable opposition to his former country's treatment of its own citizens. The latest incarnation of Wu's attempt to democratize the world's biggest police state is his going after the tools China's dictators use to enforce it. And chief among those are the tools invented primarily by one company: Chambers' Cisco Systems.

A Swipe at Freedom

According to China expert Ethan Gutmann, a Beijing beat cop need only swipe a citizen's government-issued identification card and up pops the last 3060 days of the suspect's emails on his PDA. This is the kind of technology Western companies are developing for Chinese internal security forces.

For many Americans, the Chinese government's ability to snoop so deeply into private communications with such ease is deeply shocking. But when those same Americans learn that the lack of an automated cross check between airline manifests and already identified terrorism suspects resulted in the carnage of 9/11, many of them wonder not about our civil liberties but about the competence of a government that claims to protect us.

While we fear foreign fanatics, the Chinese police state's biggest fear is its own people. This paranoia over "instability" allows minor challenges to government power to be treated as "terrorist" threats. Were the punishments not so plentiful and brutal, the mismatch of punishment to crime could otherwise be described as a grotesque comic absurdity. Thought crimes, from pointing out a glaring instance of China's rampant corruption, to opining that democracy might be a better system than China's hybrid of the worst aspects of Marxism and pirate capitalism, lead to double-digit-year jail terms.

But where the mismatch perhaps best qualifies for a Fellini script treatment is the regime's treatment of the Falun Gong movement. Portrayed successfully by the China's Western-savvy propagandists as a wacky religious cult—a portrayal swallowed mostly whole by America's uncritical mainstream media—membership in Falun Gong became a criminal offense in the 1990s. According to various human rights groups, imprisoned, executed and missing members of Falun now number in the tens of thousands.

The government's implication is that Falun Gong is a nasty cult bent on unraveling the Communist regime. But on close inspection, the group is more boring than wacky, cultish only in the sense that anything forced underground becomes necessarily secretive, and its "religious" practices are closer to what goes on in a San Jose yoga parlor or Curves franchise than something the new Pope might attend. Falun Gong's real crime was becoming too popular too fast for the insecure Chinese leadership to comprehend. Think the Beatles' or 50 Cent's boom in popularity being addressed by mass arrests, phony trials and long jail terms. If Curves were to boom in China as it did in America, there would be a lot of tubby middle-aged Chinese women in prison today.

Star Chambers: Cisco Systems' CEO John Chambers is a business legend, but some human rights activists say his company's Project Golden Shield, which involves the installation of thousands of Cisco routers, is aiding China's police state.

Project Golden Shield

But membership in a banned organization isn't required to become a target of the police state. Typing "Tibet" and "freedom" in the same email can produce a visit from the Man. How? Unlike the chaotic morphing of the government-university Arpanet into the spam- and porn-choked Internet of 2005, the Chinese web was designed from the get-go with strong social controls in mind. If America's web is a few million tributaries and a couple dozen major rivers dumping into a totally accessible ocean of data, China's is four Amazon-wide man-made rivers with 30,000 Coast Guard boats patrolling every turn.

Cisco does not deny building more than 75 percent of the pipes and dams routing the massive rivers of data entering China from the rest of the world. With thousands of Cisco routers installed at $20,000 a pop, this deal has been a platinum profit center during a period of negative or tepid growth in the U.S. market for networking gear. IBM even got into the action by providing "high end" financing to the brutal and now swimming-in-cash government. Dubbed with Orwellian flourish "Project Golden Shield," the five-year multibillion-dollar project will be completed this year.

That this unique architecture has uses other than repression is Cisco's main defense against charges of aiding the crackdown on dissent. The company also claims that it's none of Cisco's business how the Chinese use Cisco's technology. That explanation makes sense unless you happen to read Mandarin and attend Chinese networking trade shows. In fact, Cisco devotes entire trade-show booths and marketing materials to technology customized for policing and internal security purposes.

Where Cisco's PR begins to smell is its claim that China's overwhelmingly Cisco-provided web infrastructure is nothing more than an off-the-shelf product. To anyone with basic familiarity with the networking industry, that's a laughable claim. When the audience is a prospective customer—rather than a pesky human rights activist—Cisco touts the virtues of meeting the individual needs of each customer with custom solutions. Cisco believes it customizes better than any other firm and that customization put it far ahead of all other competitors.

In February of 2002, a former Yahoo! China executive confirmed that the company routinely censored its chat rooms and search functions. At that time, several Chinese engineers claimed that, in the late '90s, Cisco Systems fashioned a "special firewall box" that allowed Chinese authorities to block websites.

Under the Radar

On May 30, 2002, Cisco Systems and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission received a proposed shareholder resolution attacking the morality of Cisco's China operations and proposing that the company report annually to shareholders on all its products sold to state-owned entities in countries, like China, that employ national firewalls or monitor Internet traffic.

Seven weeks later, citing client confidentiality concerns, Cisco's lawyers responded with an 18-page document rejecting the shareholders' proposal. If you believe their second line of defense, that China's public security standards are equivalent to U.S. government standards, either America is a police state or China is a place where anyone can voice nonviolent political protest without fear. Of course, both characterizations are perfect nonsense.

China is indeed a police state with reportedly 30,000 agents assigned specifically to spotting, identifying and arresting dissident Internet users. How effective are they? Reporters Without Borders reported that a sample document with words like "freedom" and "democracy" got kicked back at a rate of 70 percent by Golden Shield's Cisco-enabled hardware and software.

The bad news is, the 30 percent that got through most likely helped the police locate more Internet "criminals."

Placating Chinese demands while simultaneously appearing to live up to American values explains why Cisco's lawyers took weeks to refute the shareholders' uncomplicated proposal. But the time was well spent in public relations terms. The proposal and the controversy surrounding it quickly died.

Axis of Technology

This isn't the first time a company in San Jose played the pivotal role in providing a totalitarian country the cutting edge technology it required to create and maintain a brutally effective police state.

As excruciatingly detailed in Edwin Black's IBM and the Holocaust, nothing—from the success of Hitler's blitzkriegs, to the identification of Germans with 1/32nd or greater Jewish blood, to the efficient murder of 6 million of those identified—would have been accomplished without the cutting edge technology of 1940, the IBM punch card.

But as airtight as Black's indictment of Big Blue was in providing custom gears for the Nazi death machine, publication of his book a half century after the fact created barely a ripple in the media and had even less impact on the public consciousness. With all the culpable IBM employees long since retired or dead, America shrugged its collective shoulders. Long removed from the company's display case of notable achievements, the photo of IBM chief James Watson Jr. accepting a Nazi trophy from the hands of Adolf Hitler was once equally uncontroversial.

"Business," as U.S. President Calvin Coolidge once observed, "is the business of America." What we may come to view as unambiguously immoral, even traitorous corporate behavior often goes strangely unindicted in its day. When IBM began wooing Nazi data processing contracts, Germany was viewed much as China is today: a former enemy with a repulsive "authoritarian" regime and a fast-growing economy to exploit. Whatever threat Germany seemed to pose in 1935 was regarded no more seriously than China is in 2005. Whether China will change once again from a politically repulsive commercial cohort into an active military opponent no one knows. With China holding a staggering $65 billion of Bush administration-created U.S. debt, not even popular Democrats are willing to speak too harshly about that chilling prospect.

Squaring Off: Imprisoned for 15 years prior to the Tiananmen revolt for espousing democracy, Harry Wu has been a persistent critic of China's police state—and one of the harshest critics of Cisco.


For Cisco and other companies abetting the Chinese police state such as Yahoo, Nortel, Sun and IBM, the motivation to play nice-nice is clear: truckloads of money. But how to explain the lack of interest from Congress and the Bush administration, with its oft-stated goal of "spreading democracy"?

The House of Representatives Policy Committee stated the official position of the Republican majority in a report dramatically titled "Tear Down This Firewall." But in a sickening display of cowardice and hypocrisy, the report advocates massive government intervention to free the global Internet but stops short of calling for sanctions on the transfer of U.S. firewall and surveillance technologies to China. Perhaps this is no surprise coming from a party that touts its laurels as the fiscal responsibility party while running up the largest debt in U.S. history.

The Bush administration seems to be playing at least one of its China cards smartly. Avoiding open criticism of the regime, which only guarantees stoking Chinese paranoia, America's propaganda apparatus—the Voice of America— commissioned software that lets Chinese web surfers sneak around the boundaries set by their government. Defeating this and other end runs is a major preoccupation of Chinese Internet police.

China has become an exceptionally good student of American government and corporate hypocrisy. It knows Americans will vote out a politician who vows to take away their automatic weapons but won't lift a finger in the defense of Chinese citizens' right to speak freely on the Internet. With that in mind, the Communist government prevailed on American tech companies, including Cisco, to sign the "Chinese Internet pledge" and the "National ID contract" documents that blatantly cave to police state tactics.

Unfortunately for the Chinese and their American tech company lap dogs, the price of an effective police state can be greater than putting dissidents in prison. Anything embarrassing to Chinese officials gets filtered better than porn in the kid's section of an American library, and the more embarrassing, the more effective the censorship.

For example, the SARS epidemic was subject to an exceptional amount of censorship even by Chinese standards. The government did everything possible to prevent independent information coming out in the news media and the Internet, to disastrous results. In the middle of the crisis, a researcher submitted a message on a sina.com.cn forum containing the word "SARS" and called on the Chinese government to work closely with Hong Kong to arrest the epidemic. A second message about SARS was submitted to the site five days later. Neither message ever appeared. "SARS" joined the long list of banned words.

According to Goldman Sachs, China's gross domestic product will exceed that of Britain's in 2005, Germany's in 2007 and Japan's in another 10 years. By 2040, China is forecast to overtake the United States as world's largest economy. It already has the largest population of DSL subscribers in the world, and, as pointed out in Thomas Friedman's excellent The World Is Flat, is on the path to outpace the United States in several areas of technological progress before the end of the decade.

Underscoring his point that the enormity of Chinese momentum in the global market has already made refusing to compete with them a matter not of choice but of corporate survival, Friedman said this in an interview with PBS' Charlie Rose: "Cisco knows if it cannot compete head to head with Huawei [China's biggest IT company] it's game over. They're gone."

That's the rub for Cisco, but it's the Sophie's Choice for America's—and the world's—increasingly corporatized societies, too. China doesn't stand a chance against American military might. But with cherished American values falling against the weight of competitive necessity, and Cisco providing the tools, that's a battle China may no longer need to win.

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From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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