IN CHINA last weekend, former President Bill Clinton failed to take advantage of a good opportunity to stand up for free-speech on the Chinese Internet - and to chastise American firms helping Beijing jail net dissidents.
Mr. Clinton delivered the keynote address Saturday at China's first "Internet Summit." In that speech, the former president said somewhat obliquely: In China, "the political system's limits on freedom of speech ... have not seemed to have any adverse consequences on e-commerce. It's something you'll all have to watch and see your way through."
But Mr. Clinton failed to even mention the latest storm from China's control of its Internet: that Yahoo Inc., the global portal, last week confirmed that it gave Chinese authorities a lead as to the identity of a Chinese journalist who then was jailed for leaking so-called state secrets. Shi Tao is serving a 10-year sentence for e-mailing foreign web sites a copy of Chinese restrictions on reporting on such sensitive issues as the 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
Jerry Yang, a Yahoo co-founder, has acknowledged that his company responded to a request from Chinese authorities for aid in locating the sender of that message, which it provided because, "To be doing business in China, or anywhere else in the world, we have to comply with local law."
In Beijing after his less than stalwart speech, Mr. Clinton added that he would have mentioned the Yahoo-abetted arrest but didn't know about it at the time - even though human-rights activists say they had written him about the case. It should be noted that Mr. Clinton 's host at the summit was Mr. Yang, whose firm recently traded all its China operations plus a billion bucks for a 40-percent share of Alibaba.com, the top Chinese Internet marketplace.
Beyond Mr. Clinton's milquetoast performance, Yahoo's willingness to aid Beijing's repression sharply highlights the issue of U.S. firms' obligations in doing business in China. Previously, Microsoft, Google and Cisco Systems have been rightfully criticized for helping China censor its Internet.
Admittedly, this is a tough dilemma for U.S. firms vying for a toehold in a market of 100 million Chinese Internet users. But just as many U.S. manufacturers abroad are embracing the principle that they must treat foreign employees decently, U.S. Internet firms shouldn't be helping China jail dissidents - local laws or not. During the Cold War, would it have been OK if a U.S. phone company helped send Russian dissidents to the Gulag?
Perhaps U.S.-based Internet firms, which ultimately make their living off the free flow of information, need a good excuse to stand up for free speech in China, such as Congress passing a law similar to the one barring U.S. firms from doling out bribes in the course of doing business abroad? In the meantime, more is expected of companies like Yahoo than complicity and of such figures as Mr. Clinton than silence.