Poster child for the kowtow, Apple has generously accommodated the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the years: disabling an app that helped Hong Kong protesters protect themselves against a tyrannical police force; censoring other apps, including news media and dating services for sexual minorities, at a far higher rate than elsewhere in the world; transferring user data and ceding legal ownership of it to the convenience of China’s persecution agencies; ignoring intellectual property theft to praise China’s innovation; and securing the Beijing government against a repeat of 2022’s White Paper Revolution, when Chinese citizens, for once, were peacefully able to decide how they want to be ruled.
While CEO Tim Cook chided the CCP’s critics for yelling on the sidelines rather than following his company’s lead to take advantage of alleged forced labor and factories where workers threaten to jump from the roof in China, Apple rocketed past the $3 trillion mark to become the most valuable firm in history. Its profits were based on the 20 percent of its revenue that comes from the Middle Kingdom and, pre-COVID, the nearly 50 percent of production sites based there. That is now set to change.
For Apple has a serious problem: Like so much e-waste, China does not seem to want it anymore. Much of what could be learned may well have already been acquired, and Apple is making eyes at India. On top, the company is becoming an inconvenience: Huawei, darling of the People’s Liberation Army, has just released the Mate 60, Mate 60 Pro and Mate 60 Pro+ smartphones. It would presumably prefer to operate in an environment even more unencumbered by overseas competition.
And Huawei is not just any old Uyghur-hunting, employee-abducting, democracy-distorting company. It is a centerpiece of China’s carefully curated self-image of greatness, whose success in beating U.S. sanctions to produce new 5G models is propaganda dynamite. No matter that its chips are almost certainly inferior, more expensive and liable to yield limitations. If there is nothing to compare on the home market, Huawei wins! China wins! And the profits it makes can be wielded for future geopolitical battles.
Thus, as Mate 60 Pro screens alight from Shandong to Shanghai, it is no surprise to see that iPhones might be abruptly snatched from the reach of some 56 million public sector staff through a security ban or even that Beijing publicly denies any such policy to do so. Apple cannot contest rules that formally do not exist in the same manner as those that officially do, and, given its general tactic of appeasing the CCP, the smart money is on a meek response in any case.
Meanwhile, for anybody else who is considering the purchase of a new smartphone and indecisive about which to choose, the will of the Chinese people is there to helpfully point the way. On the one hand is the much-publicized Huawei buying frenzy, on the other a timely racism storm has brewed, in which a post on the giant internet forum Baidu Tieba claims that an Apple website is propagating insulting Chinese stereotypes.
The said mocking content relates to a photo of a person, who, according to those offended, displays features that make them “uncomfortable” such as a “broad distance between the eyes,” “a garlic nose,” “a Mongolian face” and a beauty spot. Little thought appears to have been given by many netizens as to how this person might be damaged by having their personal appearance dissected. Significant effort was expended ranting about how the photo propagates a derogatory and outdated Western image of the Chinese from the Qing dynasty, though.
Yet far from disparaging Han, the offending content in fact seems to display an entirely standard picture, present as well on Apple websites in other countries, of an Indigenous North American staff specialist, ready and eager to help customers with their needs. It is not, therefore, likely to be poking discriminatory fun at Chinese consumers.
As reported in Taiwanese media, this inconvenient truth did not stop the supposedly prejudicial material from ranking in Baidu Tieba’s top three most popular discussions at one point, in a country where censors masterfully and manipulatively whittle what is seen from what is unseen, and others implicitly know how to take cues from the messaging.
China has not, as in the past, gone full throttle in unleashing the purported hurt feelings of its people this time, perhaps due to the millions of jobs that Apple supports there. Counteracting voices do appear to have been left visible, and, as always, it is impossible to know whether the Baidu Tieba content was posted and supported organically or nurtured by propaganda teams. Nonetheless, the warning to Apple ought to be clear, and changes to China’s law are in the pipeline to criminalize material that is hurtful to the nation’s sentiments, so the toolkit is widening if the government does wish to ignite and fan the flames of public displeasure in the future.
Almost concurrent to the racism flareup, a Beijing-favorable media outlet reported lukewarm iPhone 15 reviews on the Chinese internet and higher salaries for Huawei workers than their Apple counterparts in supplier factories, too. As the report acknowledged, the latter claim is possibly offset by differences in benefits packages, but the headline optics still suggest a nudge towards Huawei, and there can be little doubt which way the wind is blowing, a trend that others like Tesla’s Elon Musk may wish to contemplate before undercutting the sovereignty of more reliable potential partners in the Asia-Pacific neighborhood.
Returning to Apple, with nearly $200 billion wiped off its value by the abrupt cooling in its China relationship and possibly more to come, it would do well to accelerate its pivot away from the country, provided it can still escape, and to push the envelope a little more with what it allows the Chinese public to download, view, use and access along the way. If Beijing is going to edge the company out, with its stability obsession and so many families dependent on Apple, it cannot do so overnight, so there is little reason to leave quietly.