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The head of the Chinese internet company that recently acquired Yahoo’s China operations has defended the US portal’s decision to help communist authorities track down and prosecute an independent-minded local journalist.
Yahoo has been widely criticised for assisting the case against journalist Shi Tao, who was jailed for 10 years in April apparently for revealing information about government controls on the media. In an open letter to Yahoo, co-founder Jerry Yang, a leading Chinese advocate of internet freedoms, recently accused Yahoo of betraying its customers and supporting dictatorship.
But Jack Ma, founder and chief executive of Alibaba.com, which took control of Yahoo China as part of a strategic alliance with the US company announced in August, said such criticism was unjustified. “I think it’s unfair to Jerry,” said Mr Ma, one of China’s most high-profile internet entrepreneurs. “Business is business; it’s not politics.”
Yahoo’s role in the case against Mr Shi has highlighted questions about the degree to which international companies co-operate with the Chinese government, which heavily censors the internet and often uses its police and courts to silence critics. Yahoo helped authorities track Mr Shi down by giving them the internet address from which he accessed his Yahoo email.
Mr Shi was convicted of “leaking state secrets”, a charge that is vaguely defined in China and often used against dissidents.
Yahoo is less likely to face direct criticism over such issues in the future since it transferred its Chinese business to Mr Ma as part of a tie-up in which it also paid $1bn (€850m, £575m) and received a 40 per cent stake in Alibaba, China's leading business introduction website.
However, Mr Ma made clear privacy issues would not stop Yahoo China from co-operating with any future investigations by Chinese authorities into users of its email services. “I would do the same thing,” Mr Ma said. “I tell my customers and my colleagues, that’s the right way to do business.”
Mr Ma’s defence of Yahoo is unlikely to mollify Yahoo critics. Chinese companies have little choice but to be supportive of the government if they want to remain in business, but in his open letter last month, dissident Liu Xiaobo said Yahoo had enough global market clout to show greater respect for human rights. “You are helping the Communist party maintain an evil system of control over freedom of information and speech,” Mr Liu wrote.