IMAGE: Chinese President Hu Jintao
Jason Lee  /  Reuters
Congressional critics in the United States assail the government of Chinese President Hu Jintao for restricting Internet access and repressing political dissidents.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/24/2007 8:56:25 AM ET 2007-10-24T12:56:25

“Is China Nazi Germany?” asked Rep. Adam Smith, D- Wash. “Is that what we’re saying?”

That is what some of his colleagues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee were saying Tuesday as they voted to approve a bill to impose up to $2 million in penalties on American Internet companies that provide personal data on political dissidents to government officials in Vietnam, China, and other countries.

There was no roll call vote, but Smith said “no” during the committee’s voice vote.

Several members of the committee including the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., deployed the Nazi analogy in making to case for cracking down on American firms.

“History shows that U.S. companies have at times in the past provided the technology to crush human rights. For instance, IBM (executives) were good soldiers with the Gestapo,” said Smith, referring to the IBM punch card machines which Hitler’s regime used to amass data on Jews and other groups whom the Nazis persecuted.

Complicity in human rights abuses
The New Jersey Republican said firms which turn over IP addresses and other data to foreign regimes are complicit in human rights abuses.

“If you enable people to be apprehended, arrested, and then sent to the lao gai (prison labor camps) in China, you put these people at grave risk of being tortured and even killed,” Smith said, adding that his bill would protect only non-violent political and religious dissidents.

Video: China wrestles with its new prosperity “There are a host of countries where the Lech Walesas of this world, the Vaclav Havels, will never see the light of day because they are in prison somewhere; the technology is collaborating with dictatorship to put them there,” he said.

If China is just like Nazi Germany and if U.S. search engine and Internet firms are complicit in bolstering tyranny, the parallel is less than perfect history.

In 1937 — 70 years ago when Hitler was persecuting German Jews — the United States had $217 million in trade with Germany, three percent of total U.S. international trade.

Last year, U.S. trade with China totaled about $350 billion, 12 percent of all U.S. global trade. China is the second largest U.S. trade partner, right behind Canada.

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Moreover, China is the second largest foreign holder, after Japan, of U.S. Treasury securities, with $400 billion worth of Treasury bills, bonds, and notes. That’s about one-fifth of all foreign-held Treasury securities.

A China sell-off of Treasury bonds would sink the dollar’s value. As malevolent at Hitler was, he didn’t have such leverage in 1937 over U.S. finances.

Seeing Beijing regime as 'monstrous'
Joining Republican Smith in drawing the Nazi parallel was fellow Foreign Affairs Committee member Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R- Calif., who said U.S. athletes should boycott next summer’s Beijing Olympics and that it was an error for the United States to have taken part in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Slideshow: Modern China in pictures The Nazi analogy “is valid because you have a totalitarian regime that is clearly involved in massive human rights abuses and is in the process of strengthening its military and technological capability,” he said.

Even if the United States does not end up at war with China, as it did with Germany in 1941, “the monstrous nature of the regime remains the same and we should not be building them up,” Rohrabacher said.

Another Foreign Affairs Committee member, Rep. David Wu, D- Ore. supported the bill the panel approved Tuesday but said, it was “unfortunate” that the debate “was more incendiary than it needed to be.”

Comparing 1930s Germany to China was far-fetched Wu said. “Reaching for the most horrible of horribles doesn’t serve our interest very well.”

He said the 2000 trade accord with China and Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization, pushed by President Bill Clinton seven years ago, “was all about opening China and the ability of the Internet and cell phones to do that.”

Wu said Google, Yahoo! and other firms had no reason to oppose the bill. “If it was true about trade with China and opening up non-open societies through technology, then this legislation should not be a problem. It is merely carrying through on the commitments the high-tech companies made when they were arguing for that trade position.”

Yahoo! executives will appear before the committee on Nov. 6 to explain whether and why their firm turned over information to the Chinese authorities which led to the imprisonment of dissident Shi Tao.

Wu’s fellow Democrat, Adam Smith — opposing Republican Christopher Smith — thinks the bill is misguided.

“This legislation is going to be broader and far more sweeping than anticipated and it won’t have a positive impact,” the Washington state Democrat said. “The existing export control laws we have make it harder for U.S. companies to do business while the rest of the world doesn’t have the same restrictions. This bill would add to that.”

He added, “I’m not happy with China, I’m not happy with a whole bunch of countries in the Middle East. I’m not happy with Venezuela or Burma. But is it going to be the U.S. position that we’re going to cut you off and not do business with you if you do something we don’t like? That’s something I worry about.”

The bill faces an uncertain future if it reaches the House floor.

For now, the high-tech firms who are its targets are restrained in their reactions to it.

Yahoo! Spokesperson Tracy Schmaler said, “This highlights the complexity of the issues confronting U.S. companies doing business in China and similar countries, and we think it’s an important dialogue to have about the role the U.S. government should play in facing these challenges. We look forward to working constructively with Congress to find practical solutions.”

Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich said only that, “we're still evaluating this legislation.”

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