On April 18th, Wang Xiaoning filed suit against Yahoo! Inc. and its subsidiaries for their role in aiding and abetting torture abuses against Chinese journalists and human rights advocates in China. In 2002, Wang was arbitrarily detained and subsequently arrested by Chinese authorities for having written and published articles advocating for democracy and a multiparty system in China. His arrest was made only after Yahoo!’s Chinese subsidiary handed over Wang’s identification to the government. By turning over identifying information of its customers, Yahoo! is enabling acts of torture, forced labor, and arbitrary and prolonged detention to occur. As a result, Wang Xiaoning and others like him now sit in prison for having done nothing more than exercise their free speech rights.
Above, Wang's wife, Yu Ling, holds a copy of the Chinese court's judgment against her husband, which cites Yahoo's complicity in sharing with Chinese authorities Wang's anonymous e-mail information. Wang is now serving a 10-year sentence for having expressed pro-democratic views via his Yahoo! e-mail account and Yahoo! Groups, and has suffered abuse and torture at the hands of Chinese officials during his imprisonment.
The Chinese government, as a condition of allowing foreign internet companies to access its market by hosting internet servers in China, requires that foreign companies agree to turn over identifying information of internet users, block access to certain websites, and prevent internet users from being able to search certain words, like “freedom.” The identification information turned over by internet companies is used by the Chinese government, as it was in Wang Xiaoning’s case, to repress individuals who advocate for democratic reforms and greater human rights protections in China by subjecting them to arbitrary arrest, long-term imprisonment, and torture.
In 2005 – three years after Wang’s arrest – Yahoo! Inc. partnered its Chinese subsidiary, Yahoo! China, with the Chinese internet company Alibaba.com, and granted Alibaba the right to use its brand name. This move represents Yahoo’s attempt to gain access to the up-and-coming internet market in China, while trying to shield itself from liability for violating international human rights standards by distancing itself from China’s operations. Yet Yahoo! retains substantial organizational control over its China subsidiaries. By disregarding the rights of their Chinese customers, Yahoo! only facilitates the Chinese government’s repressive practices.
The American public has become increasingly perturbed by the negative social impact that U.S. enterprise can have on individuals in other countries. Perhaps the most notable example of the public outcry against corporate involvement in human rights abuses is the U.S. House of Representatives hearing in 2006, in which Yahoo! and several other U.S. internet companies were brought before the House to explain their complicity with the Chinese government’s censorship policies. Congressman Tom Lantos likened Yahoo!’s actions to the corporations that contributed to the atrocities of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
The lawsuit against Yahoo! and its subsidiaries by Wang Xiaoning and his wife, Yu Ling, underscores the dire need for U.S. corporations to put human rights and international law first in all of their business dealings, especially when operating in countries like China that commit torture and other major human rights abuses on a systemic basis.
With increasing attention being given to the business practices of U.S. companies, this lawsuit ought to convince other U.S. companies to think twice before doing business with the Chinese government, especially when ‘doing business’ means placing people at peril of their lives. U.S. companies would do well to remember that corporate profit does not justify human rights abuses.
Download the complaint here.
Laura Sydell's interview with Yu Ling on NPR is available here.
Bo Hill's interview with Morton Sklar on Radio Australia is available here.
Additional reporting available at:
CBS 5 (Sunnyvale, CA)
The Independent (UK)
Jurist Paper Chase
NBC 11 (San Francisco)
San Francisco Chronicle