I reported on Friday that France24 published screenshots showing that Yahoo! China published an item on its front page linking to a wanted list and photo gallery of Tibetan fugitives with a police number that people can call with any information about them. According to AFP, here's the response from Yahoo! public relations:
"Contrary to media reports, Yahoo! Inc. is not displaying images on its web sites of individuals wanted by Chinese authorities in connection with the recent unrest in Tibet," it said in a statement sent to AFP in Paris.
"We are looking into this matter with Alibaba Group, the company that controls China Yahoo!," the company said.
Are they implying that France24 fabricated the screenshots then? I suppose they are technically correct by saying "is not displaying" - since by the time Yahoo! p.r. made the statement, the item was in fact no longer there. Still, you'd think that Yahoo! - after all they've been through with the Shi Tao case - would know better than to issue such stupid p.r. statements, setting themselves up for more grief and accusations of dishonesty as more facts emerge.
Roland Soong has collected a lot of material on the "most wanted Tibetans" story in a long post. He responds to my last post by saying:
Well, who is Yahoo! China going to please here? On one hand, there are their corporate masters located in the United States who evaluate the public relations implications of their actions and this may have been the decision here to avoid yet another Congressional hearing. On the other hand, it will be hell to pay in China if word gets out that Yahoo! China will not assist in chasing down the criminals who perpetrate the criminal acts that have been broadly publicized around the world because of the fear of bad publicity in America.
Meanwhile another interesting item about Alibaba - which currently operates Yahoo! China - was brought to my attention. On Wednesday Reuters reported: Alibaba seeks buyers for Yahoo-owned stake: source. Here are the first two paragraphs:
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - China's Alibaba Group is seeking investors to buy the 39 percent stake in the Internet company held by Yahoo Inc, a person with direct knowledge of the situation said on Tuesday, outlining a plan that could stop Microsoft Corp from getting the Alibaba stock.
Alibaba's move indicates it thinks Microsoft is likely to win its $42.4 billion bid to buy Yahoo, in which case the Chinese company would prefer increased independence, the person said. The source did not want to be identified because of the sensitivities surrounding the discussions.
Maybe they're looking for investors who are less worried about being yelled at in congress and condemned by human rights groups?
Roland is right, Yahoo! China and MSN and all the other foreign-branded web businesses in China are caught between a rock and a hard spot in times of crisis such as the Tibet riots. There will be more such tight spots to come. In China, the Internet portals are not allowed to run original news reporting and are required to run news reports from a set of approved sources. That means that on any given story, you aren't going to get any news on any major story that the government didn't want disseminated. These portals receive feeds from approved news sources which they republish without editors giving too much thought to the "news angle" being portrayed, because it's the only angle available. During normal times, this is just a fact of life and is not particularly remarked upon. In times of crisis, when China and the West see things very differently, it becomes much more problematic. Since there's no way to run a web portal without following the rules about news sources, either you follow the rules or you don't bother doing business.
Just think: what if Yahoo! China and MSN China had been around in 1989 for the June 4th crackdown? Could they have refused to run the government's version of events on their portals - and the most-wanted lists of student protesters - without losing their licenses? How would the West have reacted if the companies had gone along with Chinese government requirements? Western companies with web businesses in China and those who invest in the whole sector should think through what they will do if something even worse than the Tibet riots happens - something on which China and the West are equally divided over who the good guys and the bad guys are. Because more things like this will happen. And these companies will be accused of aiding the "bad guys" by people back home. What then?
For those who cannot read Chinese it is interesting to note that the top headline on Yahoo! China's home page reads: 568名暴力事件受害群众获救助, or "568 victims of the violent incident receive aid and assistance." Click through that story (from the official Xinhua news agency) and scroll down to the bottom for more stories that Yahoo! China is running on the Tibet unrest. All are from the Xinhua news agency or other similarly government-sanctioned sources and include titles like "The truth about the March 14th Lhasa riots" and "Some national governments support China's legal handling of the criminal violent incident in Lhasa." It is also important to note that many Chinese portals like Sina.com have a lot more special coverage content about the riots, with headline stories denouncing the Dalai Lama, and much more in-depth content (favoring the Chinese point of view) about the whole situation than Yahoo! China has. But the problem Yahoo! China faces is that they are stuck with no other choice than to run relatively light coverage on the country's biggest national news story, because to cover it heavily would require using government-sanctioned content only, which puts them in the position of "taking sides," as it were.
It makes me really glad I'm not in charge of a foreign-invested or foreign-branded web business in China that has anything remotely to do with news. I'm actually starting to think that over the long run it may turn out to be impossible for multinationals to run commercially successful local news and user-generated content portals in local markets other than their home markets, plus markets that are politically similar or sufficiently aligned to the home country geopolitically. If you're in a market whose geopolitical interests and world view are vastly different from the home market, I don't see how you avoid this kind of "lose-lose" situation in inevitable times of crisis.
In closing I'd like to respond to a commenter who accused me of "siding with rioters." I don't believe I ever did that. For a person to kill and injure other human beings who haven't directly endangered one's own life is always wrong. The rioters who committed violent acts have sadly discredited their movement (which has never been unified in its goals and tactics, anyway, which in addition to PRC thuggishness is another reason why it hasn't gotten much of anywhere). Is the Chinese government going to handle the aftermath with sensitivity and fairness? I've seen little precedent for it. If the Chinese government wants to prove it can sort things out with sensitivity and fairness they shouldn't have kicked out the foreign media. Do I think that the Chinese government is manipulating information? Yes, because from my long experience living in China, they always have. Do I think a lot of the Western media are over-simplifying the situation, playing to their audiences' desire for a "freedom fighters vs. communist thugs" story line and getting lots of facts wrong? Also yes. Do I think that the Chinese government's treatment of Tibet created genuine anger which made an eventual violent outburst likely if not inevitable? Yes again. Do I think that the Tibetan people's lives would be better off if outside powers were to support a civil war of independence? No. Do I think that the Tibetan people's lives (and the lives of many other ethnicities who now live in Tibet) would be better off if China granted independence to Tibet tomorrow? It's questionable. Would Tibet be free of human rights problems if it became independent tomorrow? I don't think so either. That's why the Dalai Lama advocated some kind of negotiated autonomy instead of independence as the only realistic solution at this point. The riots have likely killed that possibility. But to say the Chinese government is blameless because ethnic Tibetans committed deplorable violence last week is just as naive as to claim that the Tibetan rioters were heroes.