I Was Only Following "Lawful" Orders—Yahoo!


Yesterday, Yahoo founder, Jerry Yang, and company counsel, Michael Callahan, were hauled in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to explain why they had turned over the email records of Chinese dissident journalist Shi Tao to China's communist government. Shi Tao is now spending 10 years in jail for revealing the "state secret" that the government had ordered journalists not to report on the 15th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre. As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post describes it, it was not an edifying spectacle. To wit:

"While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies," Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the corporate titans.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) said he saw a "parallel" between Yahoo and companies that helped the Nazis locate Jews to be sent to concentration camps.

"It is repugnant," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) told the executives. "It would be funny if it weren't so sickening."

Milbank continues:

"Shi Tao's mother is sitting in the first row right behind you," Lantos told the pair. "I would urge you to beg the forgiveness of the mother whose son is languishing behind bars due to Yahoo's actions." Callahan waited a bit before moving slightly and making a perfunctory nod in the direction of Shi's sobbing mother.

In his opening statement, Callahan made no apology for handing over Shi in response to a "lawful order" from the Chinese.

Furious, Lantos interrupted. "These were demands by a police state to make an American company a co-conspirator in having a freedom-loving Chinese journalist put in prison," he said. "Will you continue to use the phrase 'lawful orders,' or will you just be satisfied saying 'orders'?"

"I can refer to it that way if you like," came Callahan's insolent reply. Pressed further, he added: "It's my understanding that Chinese laws are lawful."

Yang fared no better on his corporate citizenship test. "Yahoo collaborated with the Chinese police apparatus in the imprisonment of a freedom-loving Chinese journalist. Do you agree?" Lantos asked.

"Mr. Chairman, I understand where you're coming from," the laconic billionaire answered.

Lantos was just beginning. "Mr. Yang, why is it that after craven cooperation with the Chinese state security apparatus, the provision of false information to Congress, the failure to correct the record . . . the only person punished is an innocent journalist?"

"At the end of the day I feel that everybody was doing the best they can," Yang answered quietly.

Toward the end of the hearing, Yang and Callahan apparently agreed to think about helping Shi Tao and his family. But not because they had recognized any moral imperative to do so, but because another government entity–the House Foreign Affairs Committee–told them that they should do it.

Finally, after three hours, they made a grudging offer to consider payments to the families of Shi and others Yahoo has turned over to the Chinese authorities—because of "its importance to the committee."

Lantos erupted anew. "Look into your own soul and see the damage you have done to an innocent human being and to his family," the chairman said. "It will make no difference to the committee what you do, but it will make you better human beings if you recognize your own responsibility for the enormous damage your policies have created."

All right, now that I've vented, what should American companies do when dealing with tyrannies? It is not unreasonable to argue that opening China to the wider world through trade and communication will hasten the day its Communist government will crumble. But American entrepreneurs should at least recognize the tension and express remorse when individuals directly suffer from their actions–something that Yang and Callahan failed to do yesterday. Shame on them!

Whole Milbank article here.