Oct 262012

On Thursday, the New York Times published an investigative article chronicling the dramatic increase of wealth Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s relatives have experienced during Jiabao’s tenure. Journalist David Barboza’s wrote:

 Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, an investigation by The New York Times shows. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister’s relatives — some of whom, including his wife, have a knack for aggressive deal making — have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials did not welcome the news.  Within hours, the Chinese government blocked access to the Times.  According to the Times:

By 7 a.m. Friday in China, access to both the English- and Chinese-language Websites of The Times was blocked from all 31 cities in mainland China tested. The Times had posted the article in English at 4:34 p.m. on Thursday in New York (4:34 a.m. Friday in Beijing), and finished posting the article in Chinese three hours later after the translation of final edits to the English-language version.

This is not the first time the Chinese government has tangled with the Times, and in recent months, Chinese regulators have also targeted companies including Google and Bloomberg.  China’s censorship and government control have prompted many Western companies, including Google, to move their business assets (i.e. web servers) outside of mainland China.  Perhaps even scarier for most Americans, Human Rights Watch notes that Chinese government still ensures that their nation remains Facebook and Twitter-less.

Obviously, maintaining these Human Rights and Free Expression restrictions does not bode well for the nation’s long-term success.  (In fairness, China has made some progress by recently passing their first mental health law.)

However, this issue also directly affects international business relations.  In addition to trade regulations, investment policies, etc., the Chinese government’s restrictive policies on expression pose challenges for foreign companies and investors.  As Western businesses, such as the New York Times, continue to explore the Chinese market, they risk damaging the integrity of their brand in exchange for access to a very large/emerging population.

For the most part, western media outlets have not succumbed to Chinese pressure and have, in my opinion, adopted a long-term strategy that hinges, at least in part, on expanding Chinese freedoms.

This struggle has not only been seen with the Times, Google, and Bloomberg, but also with corporations such as Apple, Microsoft, Time Warner, and the Walt Disney Company.  For instance, media companies such as Disney finds themselves working to end piracy while attempting to introduce their characters/products to the Chinese market.

I believe, or at least hope, that Western business advancements in China will ultimately help provide Chinese citizens with greater freedoms and more transparency.  As always, the greatest champion of expanding free expression and personal liberty is access to information.

Aug 272012

As you may be aware, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid deportation/trial/etc.  In the Christian Science Monitor, Kantathi Suphamongkhon makes a case for how Assange could be arrested without breaking international law.  “How to arrest Julian Assange without violating international law” is an interesting read.

In other news, Russia warns the United States against “violating” international law in the Syria conflict.  While this is not solely a human rights issue and the United States does not have a stellar human rights record, it is always ironic to to be lectured by Russia, China, Syria, and the like.  Free Pussy Riot, anyone?

Jul 252011

Human rights advocates are furious once again at the Chinese government and its continual targeting of it’s citizen’s privacy.  Many Chinese citizens have enjoyed some freedom to surf the internet at public places such as cafes, hotels, and restaurants; however, a new Chinese law now requires businesses to install costly software that tracks the web usage/traffic of each user.  This has an obvious chilling effect on speech and diminishes personal privacy.  It is another example of China’s continual assault against their citizen’s liberties.

While this development is not surprising, it should not go unnoticed.  The full story here.

Apr 262010

Several weeks ago, I began examining the international community’s responsibility to respect free expression under international law.  I examined guarantees provided by the United Nations, but a nation’s responsibilities extend beyond UN charters and conventions.

Obviously, free expression is guaranteed under domestic constitutions ranging from the United States and United Kingdom to former Soviet controlled nations such as the Republic of Uzbekistan (for example, see the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan, part three, chapter fifteen).

Further, many European countries, including Russia, are signatories to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The charter protects free speech, and signatories have agreed to adjudicate such human rights violations before the Court.

The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms guarantees the freedom of expression. Article 10 (1) states, “everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

However, for an issue to reach the ECHR, it must first be exhausted in the host nation’s legal system.  Further, if a nation is found to violate the Convention, the penalty is generally a fine, which often is not substantial enough to deter future violations.

Thus, while the ECHR theoretically protects free expression, in reality, it offers little protection in countries where the government systematically tramples their citizen’s fundamental rights.  This is especially a problem in countries like Russia where the government targets diverse opinions and the media.

The next entry in this series will focus on Russia, examining the country’s domestic and international responsibility to protect free expression as well as how they have failed to live up to the standard.

Mar 262010

I will be periodically examining international free speech issues in a series called “International Free Speech.” Specifically, I will look at international law governing free expression as well as domestic laws in several countries, including Russia and China.

Today, I begin by looking at free expression and the United Nations.

The United Nations recognizes the fundamental right of freedom of expression.  Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The Declaration was unanimously approved by the General Assembly in 1948. Eight countries, including the Soviet Union, abstained from voting.  The Declaration is non binding; however, the United Nations has argued that “the principles of the [Declaration] are considered to be international customary law…”

The United Nations has continued to recognize freedom of expression as a basic human right.  The language quoted above is also found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is one of the covenants comprising the International Bill of Human Rights.  Also, protections can be found in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Article V of the UN Millennium Declaration resolves to “ensure the freedom of the media to perform their essential role and the right of the public to have access to information.”

Thus, the United Nations has taken decisive action to recognize that people of all nations should have the right of free expression.

Next week I will briefly explore other international standards protecting free expression.

For more information on the United Nations and Human Rights, click here.  For specific information the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, click here.

Mar 242010

Not to belabor the issue, but conflict continues over Google’s decision to end censorship and operate on servers located in Hong Kong.

The conflict highlights censorship under Chinese law and illustrates problems Western companies face doing business in China. It also showcases why many US companies do business with Chinese interests via intermediaries in Hong Kong, where there is less government control, more openness, and greater legal protection for foreign interests.

Watching how Google’s decision impacts Chinese free speech (if any) and international business practices is fascinating. However, Western business dissatisfaction with China is not a new development. A new report suggests that American businesses feel they are unfairly treated by the Chinese government. Now Dell is reportedly following Google and leaving China in favor of operations in India.

In the coming months, more American companies will likely change their business practices when operating in China, but I am not optimistic that much will improve for companies doing business in China.

In the meantime, the Chinese public is still deprived of this web treasure.

UPDATE: The New York Times provides continuing coverage.

UPDATE II: San Francisco Bay Area firms pull out of Congressional hearing on China. More here.

Mar 232010

Google’s decision not to censor search results promotes the free dissemination of uncensored information in China. However, Google’s ongoing battles highlight the conflict between stringent government control and the right to uncensored information.

Over the next several weeks, I will be periodically examining legal consequences that journalists, businesses, and ordinary citizens face under domestic and international law.

The series will begin this week by examining basic free speech assurances under international law, followed by a series of posts examining Russian free speech laws and their effect.