China has Apple by the iPhones

Apple makes standing up for security and privacy part of its pitch, unless you are under the yoke of an authoritarian communist government.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Apple makes around $3 billion in revenue from China each month. It's worth keeping that in mind as that would appear to be the price of Cupertino's scruples.

Whenever the iPhone maker gets sanctimonious about privacy -- and let's face it, it's not hard when your main competitor is an advertising company -- it's worth remembering that whatever Apple says, it doesn't apply in China.

In a poll of which users around the world have the most need for the use of VPNs, the Chinese would rank near the top. And yet, two years ago, Apple ripped the VPN apps from its Chinese app store.

Only last month, in the midst of an argument with Google about how wide-ranging the effects of an iOS exploit chain were, Apple completely passed over one of the most egregious and truly awful campaigns that China has run in recent times against the Uyghur people.

Australian think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), recently warned that the Uyghurs could be "consigned to the dustbin of history" if the international community does not act.

ASPI has collected a database containing the locations of the so-called "re-education" camps that Beijing has set up in Xinjiang province.

If you haven't seen the recent footage of Uyghurs being herded by authorities at a Xinjiang train station, go see what is happening in western China.

In spite of this, Apple could only dedicate one sentence in its statement to the plight of these people.

"The attack affected fewer than a dozen websites that focus on content related to the Uyghur community," it said.

"Regardless of the scale of the attack, we take the safety and security of all users extremely seriously."

See: More generic futurist hand-waving from Huawei's founder

The rest of the statement focused on having a go at Google. There was no mention of China at all, or why a particular actor would want to focus on that one group of people.

Fast forward to this week, Apple initially rejected an app by HKmap.live from its store that, through crowdsourcing, had allowed people in Hong Kong to know where police were active, before eventually approving it on Friday.

"Your app contains content -- or facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity -- that is not legal ... Specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement." Apple told HKmap.live, according to a tweet.

As Maciej Ceglowski, founder of Pinboard, said, the app may help to keep people safe and comply with the law.

"I can't stop tweeting because I'm so angry (this should be the site motto)," he wrote.

"Another thing the map shows is when police raise a blue flag for ILLEGAL ASSEMBLY. Wandering into this puts you in legal jeopardy, a potential 5-10 year jail sentence. And the police don't want you there!"

Thankfully, the map was always viewable to all and sundry through its website.

Also: Google's Pixel smartphone production to leave China

At the end of last year, Google employees kicked up a stink about a project to create a censored Chinese search engine dubbed Dragonfly. By the time of writing, no similar activity has been seen within Apple about its operations in China.

To be clear on the jam Cupertino had to extricate itself from, before Friday it appeared that Apple would fight tooth and nail to thwart the FBI, but an app that could help protesters in Hong Kong fight against a communist regime -- that's was a bridge too far.

Naturally, as a listed company, the inevitable retort is the $3 billion in monthly revenue that Apple gets from China, and no company should snub that.

While that may be the case, Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2014 told investors complaining about its environmental initiatives to get out of the stock.

"When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don't consider the bloody ROI," Cook was reported to have said at the time, lumping the environmental push with other issues such as worker safety.

Since that appears to be the standard Cook wishes to be judged by, and let's add in the more than $200 billion in cash on hand that Apple has, why should the China issue be any different?

This week, Samsung showed it was possible to move phone production out of China, but moving Apple's production out of the Middle Kingdom would likely be another order of magnitude.

And that's the rub. If Apple were to disappoint Beijing, it could find itself as the American Huawei, only it would be a lot worse due to the iPhone maker's dependency on China's manufacturing base and supply chain

For decades, Apple has put itself up on a pedestal, demanding to be treated unlike other corporations. Now, more than ever, the company needs to match the values it puts forward.

As its famous 1997 ad said: "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo."

The crazy ones in China could use your help Apple, it's time you thought differently about them.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.


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