Can Trade Regulations Prevent Chinese Internet Censorship?

from the seems-like-a-stretch dept

In my experience, you should generally be skeptical of organizations trying to force foreign countries to do things due to “trade agreements.” This is one of the most common tricks used by the entertainment industry to push for monopolies in the name of free trade. So, consider me skeptical on a new argument raised by a California group suggesting that the WTO stop China from censoring the internet because it somehow violates a free trade agreement. While it’s admirable to come up with a reason to put pressure on China over its online censorship, this opens up a very dangerous slippery slope. Should this actually get anywhere, it would be just as easy for other countries to accuse the US of similar things with its laws. It’s even more ridiculous when you consider that the US itself has been ignoring similar trade agreement violation rulings from the WTO concerning Antigua and online gambling. Yes, it would be a good thing if China backed down from censoring the internet — but using trade agreements as a lever to put pressure on China doesn’t seem like a good idea. The chances of it being effective are minute, and even if it is effective, it simply will open up a number of other trade disputes that are probably better left alone.

Of course, an approach that’s even less likely to be successful is the one proposed by barely-registering-in-the-polls presidential candidate Chris Dodd, who showed up at Google and suggested the company voluntarily leave China. As is noted in the article, this doesn’t do much to actually help China, as Google users in that country would then just be forced to use an even more restrictive search engine — which, if anything, would probably make the Chinese government even happier. It’s great to take a principled stand — but if you don’t bother to think through the reactions and responses and the incentives you’re creating, it’s not going to do much good in the long run.

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Comments on “Can Trade Regulations Prevent Chinese Internet Censorship?”

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Shun says:


So, just how is this supposed to work, exactly? Companies stop doing business in China, because China censors the internet? Who’s bailing out of China? Wal-Mart? Mattel? I just don’t see it happening. Besides, for an embargo to work, the U.S. government would have to get involved and issue an edict, “any company doing business in so-and-so will be barred from doing business in America”. For examples of this, see Cuba.

Also, the WTO has no teeth. They can sanction, and they can ask for quid-pro-quo relief. Thus the Antigua solution to the U.S. gambling ban: pirate movies and music. Violate U.S. intellectual property rights until the U.S. recognizes Antigua’s right to sell bets to the U.S.

You can’t use the WTO as your personal billy club. WTO decisions have to have the appearance of fairness, or most nations will just go right on ignoring it. Same goes for the UN. Unless the UN is at your door, threatening to send in “Peacekeepers” most folks ignore it. Look at Darfur. It’s a mess, and Sudan is not a particularly powerful country.

All of this shows that international agreements are pointless unless everybody agrees and nobody cheats. For reasons which seem obvious to me, both of those conditions are rarely met at the same time.

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