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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Let a Thousand Filters Bloom

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In 1949, when George Orwell wrote his dystopian novel "1984," he gave its hero, Winston, a job at the Ministry of Truth. All day long, Winston clips politically unacceptable facts, stuffs them into little pneumatic tubes and then pushes the tubes down a chute. Beside him sits a woman in charge of finding and erasing the names of people who have been "vaporized." And their office, Orwell wrote, "with its 50 workers or thereabouts, was only one subsection, a single cell, as it were, in the huge complexity of the Records Department."

It's odd to read "1984" in 2005, because the politics of Orwell's vision aren't outdated. There are still plenty of governments in the world that go to extraordinary lengths to shape what their citizens read, think and say, just like Orwell's Big Brother. But the technology envisioned in "1984" is so -- well, 1980s. Paper? Pneumatic tubes? Workers in cubicles? Nowadays, none of that is necessary: It can all be done electronically, especially if, like the Chinese government, you seek the cooperation of large American companies.

Without question, China's Internet-filtering regime is "the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world," in the words of a recent report by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The system involves the censorship of web logs, search engines, chat rooms and e-mail by "thousands of public and private personnel." It also involves Microsoft, as Chinese bloggers discovered last month. Since early June, Chinese bloggers who post messages containing a forbidden word -- "Dalai Lama," for example, or "democracy" -- receive a warning: "This message contains a banned expression, please delete." It seems Microsoft has altered the Chinese version of its blog tool, MSN Spaces, at the behest of the Chinese government. Bill Gates, so eloquent on the subject of African poverty, is less worried about Chinese free speech.

But he isn't alone: Because Yahoo! is one of several companies that have signed a "public pledge on self-discipline," a Yahoo! search in China doesn't turn up all of the (politically sensitive) results. Cisco Systems, another U.S. company, has also sold hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment to China, including technology that blocks traffic not only to banned web sites, but even to particular pages within an otherwise accessible site.

Until now, most of these companies have defended themselves on the grounds that there are side benefits -- a Microsoft spokesman has said that "we're helping millions of people communicate, share stories, share photographs and build relationships" -- or on the grounds that they can't control technology anyway. A Cisco spokesman told me that this is the "same equipment technology that your local library uses to block pornography," and besides, "we're not doing anything illegal."

Over the past couple of years, Harry Wu, a Chinese human rights activist and former political prisoner, has carefully tracked Western corporate cooperation with Chinese police and internal security, and in particular with a Chinese project called "Golden Shield," a high-tech surveillance system that has been under construction for the past five years. Although the company won't confirm it, Wu says, Cisco representatives in China have told him that the company has contracts to provide technology to the police departments of at least 31 provinces.

If this isn't illegal, maybe it should be. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the United States passed a law prohibiting U.S. firms from selling "crime control and detection" equipment to the Chinese. But in 1989, the definition of police equipment ran to truncheons, handcuffs and riot gear. Has it been updated? We may soon find out: A few days ago, U.S. Representative Dan Burton of the House Foreign Relations Committee wrote a letter to the Commerce Department asking exactly that. In any case, it's time to have this debate again. There could be other solutions, such as flooding the Chinese Internet with filter-breaking technology.

Beyond legality, of course, there's morality. And the judgment of history will prove important. Sixty years after the end of World War II, IBM is still battling lawsuits from plaintiffs who accuse the company of providing the "enabling technologies" that facilitated the Holocaust. Sixty years from now, will Microsoft, Cisco and Yahoo! be doing the same?

Anne Applebaum is a columnist at The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.

By Thomas L. Friedman

On the question of whether China's CNOOC oil company should be permitted by the U.S. government to purchase the U.S. oil and gas company Unocal, my view is very simple: Let the market rule. Oil is fungible. It is all one global market. And if China wants to overpay for a second-tier U.S. energy company, that's China's business. Anyway, the more starved Americans are for oil, the sooner they will adopt alternatives and get off this drug once and for all.

If I seem uninterested in this matter, I am. Because I do not think the important issue is who owns Unocal. The important issue is whether the United States and China are drifting into a dangerous confrontation over geoeconomics. How so? Well, in brief, the Chinese and U.S. economies have become totally intertwined. While we have been focused on Sept. 11 and Iraq, China and America have become, in economic terms, Siamese twins.

Americans don't save anymore, and import more than they export. Normally, a nation that did that as long and lavishly as the United States has would have to raise interest rates to get other countries to hold its currency. But the United States has not had to do that, in part because China has been willing to hold most of the dollars it has been accumulating -- gained from all the goods it is selling America -- despite the low interest paid on those dollars and the fact that they have been depreciating against other major currencies.

How come? Call it the Tiananmen-Texas bargain. After Tiananmen, China's leaders struck an implicit bargain with their people, argued Steven Weber, director of the University of California at Berkeley's Institute of International Studies. "The bargain is that China's voters give up the right to vote, and the Chinese government guarantees China's middle class 9 percent annual economic growth. China's political stability today depends on that bargain."

The Texas side of that bargain came from the Bush team. For a long time, it ignored China's undervalued currency so China could sell Americans lots of cheap stuff and would continue holding the devaluing dollars and helping to keep U.S. interest rates low. The U.S. buying binge helped keep China's workers employed and its leaders in power. China's holding depreciating dollars helped Americans buy a house with no money down. The United States has been in symbiotic relationships like this before, with Western Europe and Japan during the Cold War, but they were allies and democracies, so the imbalances could be adjusted more easily.

The United States and China are Siamese twins, but most unlikely ones -- joined at the hip, but not identical. That's a problem. Because the United States now needs to adjust the Tiananmen-Texas bargain. So many U.S. dollars and jobs are flowing to China, it is becoming politically and economically unsustainable for the Bush team. The United States needs China to revalue its currency upward against the dollar, so China buys more stuff from America and America buys less stuff from China.

But China's foreign exchange reserves today are nearly $750 billion and heading for $1 trillion -- most in U.S. Treasury notes. If China is compelled to revalue its currency, and effectively devalue the dollar further, Beijing will take a big hit on all of its dollar reserves -- especially since most experts say the dollar has to be devalued by 30 to 40 percent against the Chinese currency to have any impact on the trade balance. That would also be likely to affect the dollar's value against other currencies and create pressure for inflation and higher interest rates in the United States.

As I said, the issue is not Unocal. The real issue is that America has slipped into a symbiotic relationship with another major power that is neither a free market nor a democracy. Both countries have grown dependent on that relationship -- the United States for cheap goods and cheap mortgages, and China for high employment and regime stability. The United States now has to adjust the bargain at the heart of that relationship. Whether it can do that delicately, without destabilizing Beijing or the global economy, could be the big geopolitical story of 2005.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist at The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.