I had the privilege of working in Hong Kong from the summer of 1988 until the spring of 1993. It was a vibrant and bustling place in those days.
Workers crammed into double-decker buses in the humidity of the early morning and lingered at their desks until late into the evening in the pursuit of a better life. High-rise luxury hotels were torn down to build even taller, more luxurious accommodations on the same precious plot of the rocky island to shelter the world travelers who came to transact business in the city-state.
Everyone knew the driving force of all this energy was China. We sat at the mouth of the Pearl River, a gateway to the greater jewel of that emerging billion-person market.
As a Western journalist for a technology magazine, I was courted by the still-booming computer industry eager to explain the wonders of the 386 or Unix to the go-go "little tiger" markets of Asia. The press corps was wined and dined in the best hotels as we heard tales of the rising technology companies of the West.
We lived in a state of semi-intoxication, in a bubble where it seemed prosperity was there for the taking. Even China's paramount ruler of those days, Deng Xiao Ping, proclaimed to the Chinese people that it was good to become wealthy.
Of course, we knew the vast majority of China was bitterly impoverished, still clawing its way out of the Dark Ages of the Cultural Revolution and its insane and ineffective communes. We had read the stories of companies like General Motors, which set up joint ventures only to sink millions into companies that failed under the weight of China's stultifying bureaucracy and crippled economy. We understood China's plentiful supply of low-wage workers had neither the ability to buy cars nor the incentive to make them. We knew unemployed and underfed villagers packed the plaza at the Guangzhou train station. But in the froth of our cocktail parties and lavish four- and five-course business luncheons, we chose not to think about such things.
In June 1989, a new wind blew across the mainland with a peaceful student uprising in Beijing. Hope quickly rose that China was on the brink of a glorious shift toward democracy that would fling open even wider the door to prosperity.
Then one night reports rolled in that something was going horribly wrong. We watched our televisions through the night as the Tiananmen massacre unfolded in real-time on CNN.
The next morning we reported to our office towers in a daze. At the bus stops and subway stations, young men gave away T-shirts and armbands emblazoned with political slogans and images of all sorts. They proclaimed solidarity with the students in Beijing in Chinese and English. It was the first time I saw the incredible industry and creativity of the Hong Kong people burst forth in an instinctive cry not for prosperity but for social justice.
The able young man in our office who ran all our errands and kept our PCs and fax machines humming looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, "Today I am ashamed to be Chinese." By 11 o'clock businesses all across the island voluntarily closed their doors. We filed into the streets like zombies, but we never made it to our usual bus stops. We picked up more T-shirts, armbands and fliers. We were directed by other workers who emerged from nowhere with megaphones and placards. Soon we were marching through Hong Kong's streets chanting for freedom, singing, crying.
Déj vu all over again
At the mouth of the Happy Valley tunnel someone had erected a replica of the Goddess of Democracy that students had put up in Tiananmen Square. Hong Kong's lady sat at an intersection between the mausoleum-like building that housed China's unofficial embassy (where I had been denied visas for business trips) and the Jockey Club, the racetrack that symbolized Hong Kong's heady pursuit of wealth.
The next day we fed newspaper reports of the massacre into our fax machines. We sent them to every fax number in China we had in our Rolodexes. How else would they ever know what had really happened?
Fast-forward 16 years. The tech industry is still shaking off the historic downturn of 2001. The computer industry knows its boom days are over. We all look for the next agents of fast growth.
Many are riding the cellular wave. If we could just get people to pay a few dollars a month for computer games, or Internet access or broadcast television delivered to our cell phones what a boom that could be.
Or maybe it's China. That booming billion-person market really is now starting to open up, get more sophisticated and embrace Western business practices and technology. We trip over each other in the airport lounges on the way to Shanghai and Beijing. We set up venture funds and conferences dedicated to China.
And once again we choose not to focus too much on certain reports. China is in the midst of a historic buildup of its military. China is cracking down on unofficial news sources and asking citizens to report any unauthorized news postings on the Web.
I tip my hat to the San Jose Mercury News columnist who recently called on companies like Cisco, Google and Yahoo to make a stand for free speech in China (see www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/business/columnists/mike_langberg/12761021.htm; free registration may be required).
Indeed, we journalists have covered countless press conferences for new industry groups aimed at educating the world about dozens of technologies and business practices. Isn't there room for an industry group of Internet giants that would spend a few dollars to educate emerging markets on the value of free speech?
Governments and churches, not businesses, are the natural agents for social justice. But in today's world where the corporation is a global entity more powerful than most governments, overseeing our care from cradle to grave I think it is not too much to ask these multinational powers to espouse an ethic.
It's time the technology industry that reaped profits from creating the Internet invested a little of its profits in raising a voice for free speech and human rights. You can call the first press conference at the stately old hotel just down the street from Tiananmen Square. I eagerly await the opportunity to cover that event.
By Rick Merritt (firstname.lastname@example.org), editor at-large for advanced systems architecture at EE Times), editor at-large for advanced systems architecture at EE Times