Apple: We can promote freedom of expression in China as we block VPN apps

After inquiries from the Senate, Apple has explained its rationale for why it cooperates with the Chinese government’s demands for censorship: The company wants to engage with Beijing in hopes its authoritarian government will one day see the benefits of freedom of expression.

For Apple, it’s perhaps a tactic just crazy enough to work.

Apple received the inquiries last month from Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, over Apple’s decision to remove 674 virtual private network (VPN) apps from its App Store in China this year. VPN apps allow users to securely access a private network while sharing data on public networks and were one of the most popular ways to circumvent the Chinese government’s “Great Firewall,” a nickname for legislation and bureaus that regulate and surveil the internet.

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In their letter to Apple, Cruz and Leahy expressed concerns about Apple “enabling the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance of the Internet.” Apple’s vice president of public policy, Cynthia Hogan, responded Tuesday, saying the company is not happy to yield to Beijing but the alternative of not cooperating is worse.

“We believe that our presence in China helps promote greater openness and facilitates the free flow of ideas and information,” wrote Hogan. “We are convinced that Apple can best promote fundamental rights, including the right of free expression, by being engaged even where we may disagree with a particular country’s law.”

Apple promotes other fundamental rights in China, such as a “strict supplier code of conduct” to promote better working conditions in factories, education of supplier employees about their rights and safety regulations and environmentally responsible practices, according to Hogan.

Hogan’s stance is identical to the one Apple CEO Tim Cook took in August shortly after the removal of VPN apps were made public. During an earnings call, Cook said Apple would “obviously rather not remove the apps” but concluded “we follow the law wherever we do business.”

Hogan answered Cruz’s and Leahy’s 10 questions on the matter with varying degrees of detail. Hogan wrote that Apple raised concerns over China’s new cybersecurity law in 2015 and that it received an order from the Chinese government this year to remove VPN apps.

But when asked if Apple formally asked the Chinese government to re-introduce VPN apps to its App Store, Hogan demurred, saying only “Apple has made its views on VPN apps clear to the Chinese government.” Hogan also skirted around a question on whether Apple ever publicly promoted freedom of expression in China or criticized China for its surveillance and censorship mechanisms, including with respect to human rights activists and ethnic minorities.

China remains Apple’s biggest albatross among all global markets, making a confrontation with Beijing over values especially unsavory. Once the leader in smartphone sales in China, Apple saw demand for the iPhone slip continuously for six consecutive quarters until this past quarter. In its latest July-through-September quarter this year, Apple saw a 12 percent growth from a year earlier in its revenue in China. 

“China was the star of the quarter,” said GBH Insights analyst Daniel Ives after Apple’s earnings report last month. “This crucial region appears to be finding its sea legs again and is the main ingredient in Apple’s recipe for success around iPhone X upgrades during 2018.”

Photo: People walk past an Apple store in Hefei, in east China’s Anhui province, in 2014. (AFP/Getty Images)


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  • Dave

    China Mobile has been blocking Android and iOS VPN apps for years now. I haven’t seen that stop any Chinese citizens from installing the apps through other sources. Ability to circumvent the Great Firewall is no great hurdle. Access to American social media and US news is prevalent among the Chinese. Censorship by the Central Party has not stopped access to blocked content for those who choose to obtain it.

  • Thelip95032

    Once again Apple sells out for the almighty dollar, I guess only millennials that have drunk the kool-Aid would believe they are not evil.