Apple, Elon and protests in China

So… what is going on with Apple in China? The $2.25 trillion corporation from Cupertino, California has found itself meddling in unprecedented protest action across the Communist state.

The world’s largest iPhone factory was at the centre of rare outrage against the government. Workers at the Foxconn facility in Zhengzhou, China, which produces 70 percent of all the latest iPhone Pro devices, clashed violently with Chinese law enforcement.

Here, workers raised concerns about the COVID regulations and alleged that some employees at Foxconn had to sleep in dormitories alongside COVID-positive people.

While production of iPhone 14 and 15 Pros has resumed at Foxconn, the weeklong disruptions are expected to cause a 30 percent reduction in these smartphones at stores worldwide.

Civilians, still donning face masks, have taken to the streets of cities like Beijing with blank posters, shouting slogans about “unlocking China.” They also call for President Xi Jinping to step down. Of course, the Chinese government have moved to quell the uprisings by any means necessary.

The Chinese people have seemingly had enough of China’s extreme COVID-19 rules. A recent fire in an apartment building in the city of Urumqi that killed 10 people has galvanised movements across the country. Protestors are blaming COVID restrictions for why the victims were unable to escape the burning building.

Images of the fans cheering in stadiums during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar have also stirred dissent among the Chinese. China’s information blockade was temporarily lifted as matches were broadcast by state-owned CCTV 5. Unlike the Asian nation, the rest of the world has steadily dropped major COVID-19 regulations like mandatory masking and social distancing.

A shock to Chinese viewers who had been under strict COVID protocols since 2020. CCTV 5 has started censoring images of maskless fans and wide crowd shots to mitigate frustrations being expressed.

Earlier this year, stringent lockdowns across Shanghai saw people legally confined to their homes. Many went without basic necessities including food and water. Eerie videos shot on smartphones began circulating as people trapped in their apartments screamed for relief.

One person even recorded themselves fishing from an office building koi pond using a drone to eat something. Shanghai citizens took to the streets in their hundreds on Sunday and mounted apparent silent protests, calling for the ruling party to step aside. Many were arrested.

Apple’s recent plans to reduce the time limit on its popular file-sharing tool Airdrop, specifically in China, just 20 days before the country-wide protest action, has left protest organisers without a key communication medium.

While Apple says that this limitation will eventually be rolled out to the rest of the world, the timeliness of the action and the fact that this was initiated in China as dissent began to bubble coincides with the use of AirDrop to spread anti-government posters opposing Xi Jinping.

One particular poster shared on AirDrop in October calling for the Chinese to “Oppose dictatorship, oppose totalitarianism, oppose autocracy,” reported Vice. People who received the digital images were sent notifications from “Xi Jinping’s iPhone.”

Despite the myriad of smartphone manufacturers in the country like Xiaomi, vivo, and Huawei, it is the iPhone that leads. In January this year, Apple reported that its iPhones make up a record 23 percent of the market share in China.

In 2021, CNET reported that Apple has invested at least $275 billion in China since 2016.

Apple CEO Tim Cook apparently struck a deal with the Chinese government to “do its part to develop China’s economy and technological prowess through investments, business deals and worker training” and in exchange, Apple would be allowed to continue expanding its operations in the country.

Some regulators in Chinese believed that Apple wasn’t contributing enough to the local economy, spurring the deal.

Another method Apple has implemented to ensure its continued operations in the country is the reduction of privacy protections for Chinese iPhones, iPad and Mac owners.

These security compromises from Apple allow the Chinese government to gain access to emails, photos, documents, contacts and locations of millions of Chinese residents. It seems the AirDrop limitation is yet another compromise to placate the state.

New York Times bureau chief Jack Nicas believes that Apple is simply sacrificing its values to maintain the position it enjoys with the Chinese state, despite being a US company.

On this, we have to begrudgingly agree with the sentiments of Elon Musk, owner of Twitter, Inc. among other companies, who asked if “Apple hates free speech” after the brand pulled its advertising from the social media platform.

We’ll take it a step further: Apple doesn’t hate free speech because it doesn’t care about free speech. It only cares about money, like all monolithic corporations.

Apple pulled its Twitter advertising because it either wishes to not have its products placed alongside the perceived increases in hate speech and sensitive content on the platform or it does not wish to have an Eli Lilly situation and lose millions of dollars because of a parody account.

Musk’s insipid platitudes about free speech relating to his goal of a “global town square”, however, fall short when it comes to real people on the streets, fighting for their freedoms.

This is about a government actively oppressing its people and a corporation helping them achieve this because it pads their bottom line.

Chinese officials have vowed to continue the iron-fisted zero-COVID policies that have incited protestors as the country prepares to face the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the disease this winter. So protests will seemingly continue unless restrictions are dropped or the government crushes organisers utterly.

If disruptions continue with its supply chain Apple will be forced to wind down manufacturing in China, which analytics from Reuters seemingly indicate. But as it stands, it is entirely impossible for Apple to separate from China any time soon and thus will only bend further if called upon.

[Image – Joseph Chan on Unsplash]


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