Washington has been abuzz about a book titled "Game Change," in which two political reporters provide all kinds of hot details about the last presidential campaign. But a lifesaving "game changer" may actually have presented itself online, on the book's publication date. That's the hope of New Jersey Republican Rep. Christopher Smith, a longtime human-rights crusader who has been trying to bring attention to the plight of the prisoners in the Chinese "laogai" network of labor camps. And the "game changer," he says, is Google's discovery that the e-mail accounts of dissidents in China have been hacked by the Chinese government, putting the lives of some courageous people in peril.
Google, which has been in China since 2005, willingly censors its search engine -- in compliance with Chinese law -- and refuses to talk about exactly what it blocks. But if you try Googling "Tiananmen Square" from an Internet cafe in Beijing, you will find picturesque images. If you Google "torture," you will learn about Japanese actions in China during World War II and, naturally, George W. Bush and Guantanamo Bay. Smith tried all this when he was in China shortly before the Beijing Olympics. Google searches for democracy, human rights or Tibet will leave the curious citizen in China lacking a lot of important information. Meanwhile, the government will know what he or she was doing online.
In response to the disclosure that dissidents' e-mails had been hacked by the government, Google is now considering pulling out of China. This would be the responsible thing to do.
Representative Smith doesn't boast that he told Google so -- but he did. He doesn't brag that he's drafted, and put through committees in the House of Representatives, legislation that would keep American companies from making too many deals with dictatorships.
In February 2006, Smith chaired the first congressional hearing on China's abuse of the Internet, and the American companies helping them to do so. The hearing, which lasted eight hours, included representatives of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco; Smith scolded them for a "sickening collaboration" with Beijing's tyrants -- accusing them of helping in "decapitating the voice of the dissidents." It was a dramatic hearing, during which the late Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California who headed the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, told the Internet technology executives: "I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night."
The fruit of Smith's tireless human-rights efforts was the introduction of the Global Online Freedom Act. Smith believes that "information technology ... should be a means of personal freedom, exploration of knowledge and communication, not a weapon to oppress people." He argues that dictatorships need two fundamental "pillars" to survive: propaganda and secret police. Misuse of the Internet supports both of these.
Smith is encouraging Google to get out of China. And he wants the Global Online Freedom Act, which has passed several committees in the House, to be brought to the floor for a vote. "U.S. companies should have no role in political censorship," he insists.
Also pushing for the legislation is Wei Jingsheng, who knows Chinese prisons all too well, and understands how unscrupulously manipulative the Chinese regime can be. Jingsheng was released from prison (after 14-1/2 years) in 1993, when China thought it might get the 2000 Olympics. When the Olympic bid failed, he was rearrested. He tells me he wants the Chinese people to be able to search the Internet because knowledge is, in fact, power. He does not mince his words. "The purpose" of the government spying on these dissidents, he tells me "is to destroy them." Google is "causing more danger to the people in China," Jingsheng says.
But, like Smith, Jingsheng doesn't mean to scold or otherwise sit in judgment. Really, he's simply emphasizing, armed with this new evidence, the reality of dictatorships, and his own history with this one. Addressing Google and "the many other companies" in its position, he says: "You tried to accommodate" China. And so, "you compromised. But the more compromise you made, the more aggressive the Chinese government would become. You must not compromise anymore. You have to cut off that relationship." He adds: "I really think the best way to protect those companies is to pass the (Global Online Freedom) legislation and this legislation would protect them from the violations of the Chinese government regime."
Jingsheng, now in the United States, represents all those voices back in his native land that we cannot hear -- that we may never hear, if the regime there has its way. Congress can, and should, stand with them.