Apple’s Bargain in China

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Apple wouldn’t be the company it is today without China. It’s where Apple manufactures nearly all of its products and sells many of them.

But my colleagues have a disturbing new article about what Apple’s dependence on China costs the company and China’s citizens. Reading it left me questioning whether it’s worth it for Apple and other American companies to operate in China if it means flouting their principles.

Jack Nicas, one of the reporters for the article, spoke to me about their investigation into the compromises that Apple makes to stay in the good graces of the Chinese government.

Shira: It’s been clear for a long time that Apple is obeying Chinese laws in ways the company doesn’t love. What was new and notable from your reporting?

Jack: We knew that the company had moved data from Chinese users of Apple devices inside China’s borders. We knew that Apple had removed apps at the Chinese government’s request. What we didn’t know until now was the degree to which Apple had acquiesced to the Chinese government’s demands in both cases.

Why does it matter where and how Apple stores data from Chinese citizens’ iPhones and other devices?

Apple’s actions could in some ways make Chinese users’ information — such as emails, digital address books, photos and locations — an inviting target for the government.

Apple agreed to move data that Chinese users save in iCloud to computer centers that are owned and operated by a Chinese state-owned company. Government employees physically manage the computers. The digital keys to unlock the data are saved on those computers. And Apple is using a technology to encrypt this data that it doesn’t use anywhere else in the world because China wouldn’t approve its other technology.

Security experts and an Apple engineer who reviewed internal Apple documents for us said that the company almost certainly wouldn’t be able to stop the Chinese government from accessing Chinese users’ potentially private and sensitive information.

What about censorship of apps? We have known that Apple, like all companies operating in China, blocks material that the government says defies its laws and norms.

What we found is that Apple built a system that is designed to proactively take down apps — without direct orders from the Chinese government — that Apple has deemed off limits in China, or that Apple believes will upset Chinese officials.

The system includes training app reviewers on a long list of topics that it believes are not permitted in China and creating software that searches for those topics, which include Tiananmen Square, independence for Tibet and Taiwan and the names of at least one critic of the Chinese Community Party. That shows that Apple in some ways is using its capabilities to augment the Chinese government’s restrictions on the internet.

Doesn’t the company have to comply with China’s laws? Is it appropriate to expect Apple to protect Chinese people from the surveillance and censorship of their own government?

Apple makes morals a central element of its brand. The company touts its commitment to privacy, security, civil liberties and protecting people from government intrusion. That’s what makes Apple’s actions in China so striking.

In Apple’s defense, the company doesn’t want to do any of this. And people close to Apple have said that the Chinese people are better off with the company in China trying its best to protect people’s data and free speech. If Apple left China, there aren’t other companies’ phones or computers that can get people around the Chinese government’s surveillance or censorship.

Are you describing a Faustian bargain: Apple makes billions of dollars in China but at the cost of its principles?

Exactly. The company has its back against the wall. Apple became wildly profitable and valuable in part because it was able to capitalize on China both as a sales market and as a manufacturing hub.

But that success has come with requirements that undercut the values that Apple executives espouse, and that Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, says Apple is all about. Apple has reaped riches from China, but is now grappling with enormous compromises.

Is this how Apple imagined it would be in China?

I don’t think anyone at Apple envisioned how entrenched the company would become in China or the risks that Apple would be exposed to. In the beginning, Apple was setting up a few factories and had relatively small product sales in China. Now Apple is completely dependent on the country, and that gives the government a lot of power over Apple.

But it’s also inaccurate to say that Apple has no leverage. China wants iPhones to be available there, and it also values the millions of jobs that Apple’s supply chain creates.

Read more about this Apple investigation:

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  • The name is Bond. Amazon Bond. (I’m very sorry for this terrible joke.): Amazon is negotiating to buy MGM, the movie and TV company that owns the rights to James Bond, the Pink Panther and other characters, my colleague Brooks Barnes reports. Also, read what a reshuffling of big media companies might mean for your favorite streaming video service.

  • “I would say that social media is the mass protest.” That’s what the founder of told my colleagues Vivian Yee and Mona El-Naggar about online posts and videos that have made pro-Palestinian voices instantaneously accessible for a global audience.

  • Internet access gaps hurt rural economies: My colleague Ben Casselman writes about a rural county outside Des Moines where local leaders say that spotty internet access is holding back plans to attract new businesses and a younger generation of workers.

This is fine art that you won’t see in a museum. A 138-foot-tall hot air balloon of a mouse character might be coming to the skies of a city near you.

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