Belmont Club

The monkey trap

The Urban Dictionary defines a monkey trap as a snare for “animals too smart to fall for an ordinary trap i.e. monkeys and people. It works by appealing to their greed such as a job that sucks but pays to well to let go of, or a relationship which is empty or destructive but offers certain perks which make it hard to escape.
The original monkey trap involves a hollow coconut chained to a stake and baited with food. It has a hole large enough for the monkey to put its hand into, but too small to remove its hand while holding the bait. The monkey needs only to let go to escape, but gets caught because it refuses to let go in its panic to keep its precious find.” For those who would laugh at the stupidity of monkeys the Urban Dictionary article notes that humans have been known to fall for the same snare. One prime example is that of a job that the employee hates, but is too well-paid for him to quit.

The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Crovitz suggests using a monkey trap — China’s desire for profit — to moderate its authoritarian tendencies in information technology. The latest proposal from Beijing is to build surveillance and control devices into the hardware of personal computers.

Beijing recently announced that starting on July 1, all computers sold in China must come installed with government-designed software to block pornography. Testing by Internet experts shows that the software, called Green Dam-Youth Escort, also is designed to censor political and religious Web sites, disable programs when people input sensitive words, monitor personal communications, and track where Chinese citizens go on the Web.

In essence, bureaucrats in China want the world’s computer makers to make it easier for their Thought Police to block access to news and information from the outside world, and to punish citizens for the sites they visit and the views they express online.

And as we all know, when Beijing wants something, its market power makes Western governments, suppliers and service providers fall into line. The Green Dam-Youth Escort system provides all the hints necessary. Suddenly sensitive people will discover the virtues of restrictive chips because it is “for the children” or is good for power management. With the words “Green”, “Youth” and “Escort”, a spinmeister can create a justification for anything.  What will stop China from insisting on its plan? Crovitz has little faith in the power of politicians to resist the Beijing and no illusions about China’s desire for control, but he does see one motivation which may moderate it: greed.

Yet when the interests of foreign businesses coincide with the interests of the Chinese people, the kowtow may not be the only corporate option. Consider a precedent from the 1990s. Xinhua, the state news agency, demanded that foreign financial-information providers let government bureaucrats decide what information could be reported and also demanded a big share of the revenues. Dow Jones, which publishes the Journal, and Reuters teamed up to fight the regulations.

James McGregor was the top Dow Jones executive in China at the time. (I was responsible for the company’s financial-information operations in Asia.) Mr. McGregor recounts in his book on doing business in China, “One Billion Customers,” how two years of lobbying headed off the regulations. The focus was on Chinese ministries such as foreign trade and foreign affairs, as well as Chinese stock-market regulators and central bankers who understood that Chinese financial professionals need access to sound information to make investment and trading decisions.

In other words, in order to have any chance to stop the Green Dam-Youth Escort system, the West must make the case that censorship, at least in its most repressive forms, is expensive and unprofitable.  That’s the only thing that will work. Appeals to morality, human rights and the ideals of ancient Greece are unlikely to make much impression on the men in Beijing. But the sound of a cash register sounding — or at least the prospect of a cash register not sounding — may have a greater effect.

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