Thursday, July 14, 2011

Global Times Fears Our Eyes and Ears

Cisco camera, lovingly made in China

Should American companies be allowed to sell products in China that can be used to monitor or suppress dissent? Whether prompted by Cisco’s sale of IT equipment that helps maintain the Great Firewall or the sad sad saga of Google China, this question, and the ethical dilemma it evokes, has already been extensively mulled over by American politicians, businesspeople, lawyers and press outlets.

It’s much rarer to hear the official Chinese media weigh in on the issue, and even rarer for those media organs to agree with those who would prohibit US companies from making such transactions. Therefore, the fact that a recent editorial by the Global Times (环球时报) – an English-language Chinese paper with a pro-establishment reputation – agrees with those who would prohibit such sales is quite odd indeed.

Has the Global Times broken character? Certainly not! After all, the devil is in the details. The paper proclaims: 

Video images throughout Chongqing could involve important national security information. How could we ask a foreign company, especially a company from a not so friendly country, to handle this project?

In other words, far from acknowledging the ethical issue at hand, the Global Times makes it's declaration on the basis of its fears of US eyes and ears. As the argument goes, what is stopping Cisco from secretly designing or configuring these cameras to broadcast images to US security agencies? 

This thought is risible for many reasons. Not only does Chongqing have the liberty to put the cameras anywhere it pleases, but one would also assume that the municipality, as well as Chinese security experts, would have unlimited opportunities to examine Cisco's system thoroughly. Nevertheless, the Global Times seems to think a Cisco surveillance system is a national security risk, and is convinced that Americans would agree if the tables were turned.

If the surveillance cameras in New York City were made in China, US congressmen would riot. We know the storms of opposition seen against US soldiers wearing berets made in China, or against Chinese private companies trying to acquire US companies.

I won’t argue that Americans don’t have their protectionist streak. But does Congress really care where New York City’s security cameras are made? Hardly. In fact, I would be willing to bet quite a bit of money that most of the Big Apple's cameras are made in China, assembled in China, or contain a large number of Chinese components.

But just to be on the safe side of my wager, I used five minutes of my day to Google one company that claims it supplies security cameras to New York City. According to this press release, in 2007, the State of New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority awarded Smiths Detection a $3.2 million contract to engineer and deploy a system of chemical sensors and security cameras in NYC transit stations. I took a minute to look up several cameras Smiths currently offers and found many familiar brand names: Sony, Panasonic, Bosch, etc.

I have written B2B advertisements for many security cameras before, so I know very well that such brands often source cameras on an OEM basis or have them assembled in China using lenses and high-end components from Japan or other developed markets. Many if not most of the parts are China-made. So where is the Congressional rioting? One might argue that American politicians might be more quick to take note if the company handling the installation were Chinese. However, the Global Times has specifically used the phrase "made in China" to describe devices that would be sure to rile our testy lawmakers.

The fact that the paper doesn’t seem to realize that Cisco’s cameras are already fabricated in their own homeland says a lot about the quality of the paper’s reporting. It took me no more than one minute to find this China-made model from Cisco. So how can China-made cameras, installed under the eyes of local authorities, operated by Chinese security wonks, and open for examination at any time the government pleases constitute a national security risk?

Is the Global Times editorial staff so embarrassingly incapable of doing research, or is there another motive behind the paper’s opposition to Cisco’s supposed meddling? One clue might come from the following sentence from the conclusion of the editorial in question:

In the past, China might have sacrificed some smaller aspects of security in order to gain larger security. Now that we have grown stronger, we should not be nervous about US threats of sanctions.

The reference to sanctions is noteworthy. In a July 14 article in Time (dated one week after the Global Times piece) Fareed Zakaria takes note of what he calls China’s "New Parochialism". Zakaria claims that the Middle Kingdom is turning inward, increasingly favoring local companies over Western companies, often to the point of violating rules of market access and trade. He ties this local favoritism to a broader rejection of Western values symbolized by the rise of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and other romanticizers of the days of Mao. 

In light of the above, one might wonder whether the Global Times really feels that Cisco’s cameras are a national security risk or whether the paper would simply have preferred that the contract for supplying security cameras to Chongqing have gone to a Chinese enterprise.

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