Apple under renewed scrutiny over its relationship with China

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Apple under renewed scrutiny over its relationship with China


Originally published by THE GLOBE AND MAIL on Dec. 7, 2022

The COVID-19 protests that have swept China in recent weeks are raising questions about the ethics of Apple’s relationship with Beijing.

The partygoers in formal wear walking to a holiday event at Apple’s spaceship-like headquarters this week may have noticed a flashing white light illuminating a picture, perched on a nearby sidewalk, of the company’s CEO Tim Cook with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Anyone who stopped for a closer look would have seen the leash drawn from Mr. Xi’s hand to Mr. Cook’s neck, a crude illustration of the reason a pair of hunger strikers have taken up residence on the street corner in Cupertino, Calif.

“We believe Apple is helping the Chinese government to control our people,” said Han Wang, a Chinese-born data analytics student who arrived with a sleeping bag, megaphones, litres of water and protest signs urging opposition to “exploitation, censorship, hypocrisy and blood money.” He expects to remain here for a week, hopeful someone inside Apple’s corporate colossus will take notice.

No other marquee U.S. technology company is as reliant upon China as Apple Inc., which has built its devices and its revenues on a symbiotic relationship with Chinese authorities.

But the COVID-19 protests that have swept China in recent weeks are now renewing scrutiny of the company, part of broader anger directed at Beijing and those perceived as its allies.

It’s a measure of how COVID discontent has inspired new criticism of the Chinese government and its practices, even from those who have previously been among the Communist Party’s most reliable defenders. Chinese student groups in the U.S., for example, have begun to express solidarity with Uyghurs, the largely Muslim Turkic group in China’s western Xinjiang region whose treatment has been called genocide by the U.S. government and Canadian parliamentarians.

Among Chinese people, COVID frustrations have inspired “a new willingness to criticize the government’s competence and reassess issues like what is happening to Uyghurs or the Hong Kong protests,” said William Nee, research and advocacy co-ordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a research and activism group.

Most of the notable Chinese protest movements in the past 15 years have come from the country’s periphery, he said, pointing to Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. But recent protests have spanned China, including its top cities, so “the government’s tactics to discredit the protests simply aren’t as effective,” he said.

Apple is not alone in facing new questions about its relationship with China. Virtually every global automaker relies upon raw materials from Xinjiang, including aluminum and steel, according to a new report from researchers at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University that prompted the United Auto Workers to call on companies to ensure their supply chains do not rely on Uyghur forced labour.

More than 90 per cent of Apple’s products are assembled in China, a country that made up a quarter of its annual sales in 2015.

Apple has sought to reduce its reliance on China by expanding procurement from India, Vietnam and the U.S.

The company did not respond to questions from The Globe and Mail.

Last week, Mr. Cook remained mute when a Fox News journalist on Capitol Hill asked him a series of questions about the company’s conduct in China. “Do you think it’s problematic to do business with the Communist Chinese Party when they suppress human rights?” Hillary Vaughn, the journalist, asked. Mr. Cook walked by in silence.

That video helped prompt Mr. Wang to stage his hunger strike.

“Some big tech companies have kowtowed to Xi Jinping and the Chinese government, for a long time. But this is my first time to just stand up,” he said.

Apple has removed hundreds of apps from its App Store in China, including VPNs that can be used to provide access to censored content. Last year, it stripped a popular Quran app from its Chinese store. In 2018, it moved the cloud data for its Chinese customers to a state-owned company in Guizhou. Workers manufacturing iPhones have responded to what they have called unfair working conditions by taking their own lives with a series of suicides in 2010 and, more recently, protesting COVID lockdowns.

In November, Apple constrained the functionality of AirDrop in China, where protesters had used the service to send information directly between phones, skirting the censorship and surveillance of the country’s online spaces.

Apple has responded to critics by pointing to its human-rights policy, which says: “We’re required to comply with local laws, and at times there are complex issues about which we may disagree with governments.”

Some U.S. tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, have avoided such conflicts with China by refusing to submit to censorship, and therefore forgoing the Chinese market. All three of those companies’ services are unavailable on the Chinese internet.

As for Apple, its immense scale in China affords it a power to advocate for change and resist government demands, as it has in the U.S., said another Chinese-born hunger striker who The Globe is not identifying because he fears reprisal. Mr. Cook is “a fighter in the United States, but looks like a coward in mainland China,” he said.

Among those supporting the hunger strike is Teng Biao, a Chinese human-rights lawyer and activist now living in New Jersey.

“Apple should realize that to be complicit in human-rights violations in China or any other dictatorial regimes is not acceptable,” Mr. Teng said.

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