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Rotten Apple

Tech CEOs like Apple’s Tim Cook offer no quarter to conservatives in U.S. legislatures, but, with billions in profits on the line, they collaborate with dictators in China

Rotten Apple

Tim Cook speaks at the 2015 Ripple of Hope Awards. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for RFK Human Rights)

Two years ago, when Apple CEO Tim Cook accepted the Ripple of Hope award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, he outlined the Apple Doctrine: “We reject pessimism and cynicism. We see no contradiction between a hard-headed realism and an unshakable idealism that says anything is possible if we just get to work.”

Cook was accurate in one sense. Since Cook became Apple’s head as Steve Jobs was dying in 2011, Apple has unshakably pushed for same-sex marriage and other LGBT ideals while supporting boycotts of North Carolina and other states that pushed back against the transgender agenda. At the same time, it has maybe realistically, but certainly cynically, been the Chinese government’s little brother in suppressing freedom of information. China’s leaders have banned depiction on television of LGBT relationships.

Since Chinese government censors block popular sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and The New York Times, millions of Chinese use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access those websites or connect with colleagues in other countries. But this year the Chinese government with help from U.S. tech companies is cracking down on VPN usage. At the end of July, Apple became the latest in a long line of tech companies to kowtow to Beijing by pulling more than 60 VPN apps from its App Store in China.

‘Liberal social justice CEOs such as Apple’s Tim Cook and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos like to champion human rights and stand up to local and federal governments here in the United States when it is politically expedient and the stakes are low.’ —Justin Danhof

Other U.S. tech companies have been Chinese government lackeys. In 2005, Yahoo provided the Chinese government with information about journalist Shi Tao’s personal email account that led to his 10-year prison sentence for sharing “state secrets.” The same year, Microsoft shut down the blog of a famous human rights activist under Chinese orders and blocked sensitive words like “democracy” and “human rights” from its Chinese blogging platform.

In 2008, Wired reported that Cisco Systems had viewed China’s Great Firewall censorship project as an opportunity to sell more routers. Cisco said it sold the Chinese government $100,000 worth of routers and switches, which were used to enforce censorship. Google pleased Chinese dictators by censoring its search results from 2006 until 2010, only to find that the Chinese government was hacking into the Gmail accounts of human rights activists.

In 2014, Microsoft-owned LinkedIn agreed to work with the Chinese government and today continues to censor sensitive posts by its users. Facebook, now banned in China, has tried desperately to get back into the country: Founder Mark Zuckerberg kowtows by asking his employees to read a propagandistic book by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Apple in July not only eliminated VPNs from the App Store, but also started building its first data center in Guizhou. The center will be operated by Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, which was co-founded by the provincial government, so having a data center in China will make it easier for the Chinese government to hack into iCloud accounts or use legal means to force Apple to give up information on dissidents. Although Apple promised that the company would not allow any back doors into its system, the company’s record leaves few dissidents assured.

As Apple dropped VPNs, others have followed suit: In August, the Chinese partner of Amazon’s cloud computing services sent emails to its clients asking them to delete their VPNs and other tools used to circumvent China’s “Great Firewall.” Several luxury hotels in Beijing have stopped providing VPNs to their largely foreign customer base.

ImagineChina via AP Images

An Apple Store in Guangzhou, China. (ImagineChina via AP Images)

The problem of corporate complicity in China’s human rights abuses is not new. In a 2006 House human rights hearing on Google’s, Yahoo’s, Microsoft’s, and Cisco’s involvement in aiding censorship in China, company representatives argued they were not proud of their actions, yet believed the companies provide Chinese citizens with opportunities they otherwise would not have to express themselves and access information. To that, the late Rep. Tom Lantos replied, “I do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.”

Here’s where Cook’s “realism” comes into play. China currently has an eye-popping 1.32 billion mobile phone subscribers, and Apple is struggling to compete with domestic brands such as Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi. Compared to last year, Apple’s revenue from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan fell 10 percent to $8 billion. Yet the region still makes up about 20 percent of Apple’s total revenue, and it holds the greatest opportunity for growth, especially as the company plans to release the iPhone 8 later this year.

Cook early in August said Apple was only following China’s laws, and that Apple can do more for China’s citizens by staying in the country: “We believe in engaging with governments even when we disagree ... because innovation really requires freedom to collaborate and communicate.” But Cook, who is openly gay, did not engage with North Carolina when its legislature passed a bill stating that people in government buildings should use restrooms and locker rooms based on their biological sex: Apple signed an amicus brief against the bill.

Last year the FBI wanted to access the iPhone of a terrorist who had been killed, yet Apple refused, saying that if it created such an operating system, it could weaken product security and expand the government’s reach. In words that would come back to haunt the company, an Apple letter to customers asked, “Should the government be allowed to order us to create other capabilities for surveillance purposes, such as recording conversations or location tracking?” Apparently, the answer is “yes” regarding China’s government.

Free Enterprise Project Director Justin Danhof on Aug. 2 issued a statement about Apple hypocrisy: “Liberal social justice CEOs such as Apple’s Tim Cook and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos like to champion human rights and stand up to local and federal governments here in the United States when it is politically expedient and the stakes are low. But when faced with pressure from a regime such as China that actively squashes the most basic of human rights—such as the right of free speech and expression—they seem all too willing to show their true colors and help keep the Chinese people in the dark.”

VPN companies and those advocating for online privacy are also upset over Apple’s hypocrisy. “We are troubled to see Apple aiding China’s censorship efforts,” ExpressVPN stated on its website after Apple took the company’s app off its App Store: “ExpressVPN strongly condemns these measures, which threaten free speech and civil liberties.”

Another popular VPN service, VyprVPN, is also gone from the App Store. VyprVPN was created by tech security company Golden Frog, which signed an amicus brief supporting Apple last year in its battle with the FBI. CEO Sunday Yokubaitis wrote on the company’s website, “We’re extremely disappointed that Apple has bowed to pressure from China to remove VPN apps without citing any Chinese law or regulation making VPNs illegal.”

Yokubaitis hoped “Apple [would] recognize Internet access as a human right” and that it “would choose human rights over profits.” He pointed out that the U.N. Human Rights Council has adopted resolutions, most recently in 2016, to protect internet free speech and condemn governments that “intentionally prevent or disrupt access” to the internet. Ironically, China is part of the Human Rights Council and approved the resolution.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A man uses his smartphone in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In the 1990s Chinese democracy advocates, human rights activists, and Christians viewed the internet as a way to connect with outsiders, publish their works without the censors of the publishing world, and gain a larger audience. Yet in 1997, the Ministry of Public Security began to control internet usage. It has since created the world’s most comprehensive and advanced internet censorship apparatus, with 2 million government censors monitoring the internet.

The trend toward more control is now accelerating. June in China brought a new cybersecurity law that requires foreign companies to store data in China and implement security checks when certain firms move data out of China. In July the government ordered three state-run phone carriers to enforce a ban on personal VPNs and required businesses to register their VPNs. Foreign-based VPN companies, like the ones removed from the App Store, don’t fall under this law as they do not operate in China.

China has always allowed these cracks in the Great Firewall. That’s because foreign companies need VPNs to connect with their home networks, Chinese scholars need them to access scholarly literature, and even state-owned media need VPNs to publish propaganda-type headlines on Twitter and Facebook. These mainly positive news stories target an international audience, as Chinese citizens can’t access Twitter. A recent tweet by government mouthpiece Xinhua News featured a video of two pandas eating ice cakes in the Shanghai Wild Animal Park.

The tightening of VPNs comes as government censors have had a busy summer removing sensitive posts about the late Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the protests surrounding the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover. Censorship is typically tight ahead of large government meetings, and this fall the country’s top leaders will convene in Beijing for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The meeting, held every five years, determines the Central Committee and will almost certainly mark the beginning of Xi’s second five-year term.

For now, a number of VPN services are still working throughout China, and users can still find other ways to download VyprVPN and ExpressVPN besides the China App Store. Paid VPN services often have multiple URLs in case the main site is blocked, and Apple users in China can access the U.S. App Store by setting up a new Apple account with a U.S. address.

Yet the hassle caused by the Great Firewall makes it more difficult for China to attract foreign companies, as 83 percent of foreign businesses feel the firewall negatively impacts their business, according to a 2015 American Chamber of Commerce in China survey. It also may be hurting tourism to China, as travelers are less eager to visit a country where they can’t access any of their social media apps or preferred sites. The number of inbound tourists to China increased only at an average annual rate of 1 percent between 2005 and 2015.

Those realities make it possible for U.S. tech companies to hang tougher than they have: They want to do business in China, and the government also wants them there, given the need to create more jobs as millions of countryside dwellers each year flock to cities. But the weakness of the U.S. tech industry response to China’s censorship push encourages the crackdown, just as appeasement normally leads to more aggression.

Earlier this year, as rumors of a VPN crackdown swirled among Chinese citizens, photographer Jiang Zhongming expressed the fears that he and his friends—who he says all use VPNs—face: “It feels like we’ve gone back to being cut off from the rest of the world again.” Tim Cook and his colleagues may laugh all the way to the bank and to award ceremonies, but (as the Bible notes) he who digs a pit falls into it.

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 08/19/2017 09:48 am

    "We are not proud of our actions, but look at the good that we are doing!"

    Pause, and reflect...

    "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs."  (1Tim 6:10 ESV2011)