Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 20 May 2021

 Apple must resist China’s tyranny

A man waits at an Apple Store in Shanghai last October. (Aly Song/Reuters)
Opinion by the Editorial Board
May 20 at 3:45 am Taiwan Time
“YOU GET in the arena, because nothing ever changes from the sideline.” This is how Apple CEO Tim Cook made the case a few years ago for his company’s presence in China. But an investigation by the New York Times suggests less is changing from inside the arena than Apple’s defenders have hoped.
This week’s report reveals the extent to which Apple must compromise its principles of privacy and civil liberties to appease President Xi Jinping’s government. Apple has always said that a U.S. firm can better stand up to the demands of the invasive regime than could a homegrown alternative, and indeed there are requests for personal information or app store takedowns that Apple has refused. But security experts worry that the very structure of its new iCloud centers in the country puts data at risk. Apple’s proactive efforts to censor its Chinese app store are similarly dispiriting.
Apple moved the data of its Chinese customers to the servers of a state-owned Chinese company not because it wished to, but because a 2016 cybersecurity law required onshoring. For the same reason, Apple moved the encryption keys for unlocking the data to that company’s centers. Apple insists that its security in China is its most robust anywhere and that the keys remain under its control; critics wonder how safe any data can really be on Chinese soil under the auspices of a Chinese institution. They wonder, too, how likely Apple is to deny Chinese orders to hand over data when authorities decide to ask for it rather than just take it.
The story is much the same when it comes to speech. Apple’s teams review apps for verboten topics such as Tiananmen Square or the independence of Tibet. This practice isn’t specific to China; Apple, much like other U.S. technology companies, makes a habit of following local laws. What is different, of course, are the laws themselves — in China, more draconian than a company with morality at the core of its brand should be able to stomach.
Apple is undoubtedly in a sticky situation. The cheap, high-quality labor available in China enables the assembly of almost every iPhone, iPad and Mac computer, and the company rakes in $55 billion a year from the surrounding region. Losing China means losing a lot of money. Mr. Cook argues that Chinese consumers, deprived of protections only Apple provides them, would lose, too. Maybe so. Yet compliance with ever-harsher strictures not only cuts against the values Apple says it holds dear but also paves the road for other countries less set in their totalitarian ways to forge strictures of their own.
There are some red lines of anti-democracy that Apple shouldn’t cross — and those that China hasn’t asked the company to cross already, someday it surely will. Apple can reduce the cost of saying no by diversifying its supply chain, as it has begun to do for some products. Whatever the cost of resisting tyranny remains, Apple ought to be willing to pay.

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