I never would have believed that the day would come when I thought that Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, even George Bush all showed more moral fiber than the leaders of the finest companies in the world’s greatest country.
However, judging by last week’s visit of China’s premier Hu Jintao to the United States, that day has come. The fawning and obsequious behavior of the world’s most powerful businessman, Bill Gates, and his deafening silence was one of the most depressing displays of capitalist behavior I’ve seen in recent years. Say what you will about Microsoft’s monopoly, but the reality is that if China wants to keep playing on the world stage it must have access to the Windows operating system. China needs Microsoft more than Microsoft needs China. This is an extraordinary position for a capitalist and a self-defined global health care crusader to find himself in. Gates has a bully pulpit that he could use to make even mild comments about repressive countries, and intransigent leadership, and morally repulsive behaviors.
Instead we are treated to goofy pictures of a silly looking Gates, and his bald-headed hulking sidekick Steve Ballmer, toasting the premier with Dom Perignon and making meaningless comments. It’s not hard to imagine them sitting back in that $60 million mansion afterwards, like Mr Burns and Waylon Smithers of The Simpsons who glory in selling nuclear power to the world for profits, rubbing their hands together in glee at the prospect of more millions pouring into their coffers as every PC sold in China now has to have a legal copy of Windows installed on it. Think of it! A legal version. This is so important a step forward that the premier has to fly over and announce it, and as a result Gates folds his tent, serves a fancy dinner, and conveniently forgets his moral courage.
Isn’t there something very wrong with this tunnel-vision that lets great American companies focus on their self interest while ignoring the social realities that make their success possible? Is making money the only answer, a la Ayn Rand? Or is there a higher order, a moral commandment for those of us in the wealthy world to speak out about wrong wherever we see it? And for those whose privilege and position gives them the power to do this without serious consequence, isn’t it an imperative? And if it isn’t, shouldn’t we demand it of those we elevate to the pantheon?
The American love for the almighty dollar has blinded us to the realities of what is actually going on at the ground level in China. China may be a booming economy, and it may have more consumers than any place on earth, but it is still a repressive, totalitarian place where the government squelches dissent, where speeches by American notables are routinely sanitized of critical comments before being broadcast or reported locally, where the average citizen has his Internet access edited and limited as a matter of course, where Tibet is under thumb, where the army is vast and on high alert, where secrecy and a lack of transparency are endemic, where American ideas and intellectual property are routinely stolen, where a handful of well-connected and corrupt people control much of the wealth, where bribery is commonplace for even the smallest mercantile exchange, where Iran and North Korea can find support for their nuclear ambitions, where female children are routinely aborted, where pollution that is truly toxic is countenanced, where religious freedom is non-existent if you’re part of the Falun Gong, and where dissidents are jailed under phony pretexts and then tried in kangaroo courts that are a throwback to the Manchurian Candidate.
At least our government was cool in its embrace of the Chinese premier, and Hollywood’s celebrities routinely point up issues they care about because they really have no risk once they’ve made it onto the cover of People magazine a few times—after all, Tom Cruise is still a movie star with big box office potential no matter what you think about his beliefs on motherhood and anti-depressant medication.
But don’t look for moral courage from Bill Gates. Nor, for that matter, the leaders of Yahoo, which was implicated in fingering a Chinese dissident recently or Google, which jumps through whatever hoops the Chinese government demands, either. Sure, you can tell me that laissez faire capitalism doesn’t make moral judgments about where it does business. That same argument was prevalent among those doing business with Germany in the 1930s too, as American companies kept fueling the Nazi economy. That abyss of business amorality, and the weakness of our business leaders in speaking out about what they see, is exactly what the Chinese government is counting on to weaken our resolve, hobble our response, and enthrall us to cheap labor and products.
Business can change the world, but it only works when it is paired with a backbone of freedom that gives everyone the opportunity to succeed on their own blood, sweat, smarts, and tears.
Where’s our high-tech Winston Churchill?