Remember the good ol' days, when companies that did terrible things tried to hide their behavior? Those days are gone. Just witness the American technology companies shamelessly scrambling to get in on a government project in China that is almost certainly designed to help the repressive regime spy on its own citizens.
The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday reported that Cisco Systems is "poised" to help build a network of 500,000 surveillance cameras in the city of Chongqing. Called "Peaceful Chonqing," the project is ostensibly meant to fight crime. But critics of the Chinese government -- which has been known to spy on its citizens, and also to torture and imprison them for political reasons -- say the system will be used to quash dissent.
Cisco's not talking, but neither is it denying that it's near a deal to provide the networking gear for the project. And while it apparently wouldn't be illegal for Cisco to provide the equipment, it's surely immoral. Cisco can't possibly believe that China's motives are pure with this thing. The company is hoping to profit from helping the Chinese government repress its own citizens.
It really is that simple.
In its article, the Journal asks rhetorically: "Should companies be held accountable if foreign governments use their products for political suppression?" That this is even put in the form of a question highlights how far we've sunk. Because unlike, say, the issue of trade (should we do legitimate business with repressive regimes -- it's not a simple matter), this is as close to black-and-white as it gets.
Unlike Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, which is also reportedly planning to bid on the project, has defended itself publicly, in a disturbingly bloodless and mercenary way. The Journal notes:
Todd Bradley, an executive vice president who oversees H-P's China strategy, said in an interview last week in China, "We take [Chinese officials] at their word as to the usage." He added, "It's not my job to really understand what they're going to use it for. Our job is to respond to the bid that they've made."Somewhere along the line, American corporations, by putting "shareholder value" above all other considerations, lost the moral compass they once had, or pretended to have (even the pretense at least kept the concept of shame operant). By presuming that shareholders are the only people who matter, corporations can pretty much do anything they want, as long as it isn't technically illegal. And so, of course, they do.