Apple continues to do business with the Chinese government despite receiving scrutiny and criticism. That business has been Faustian at times – for example, the Cupertino tech giant has removed apps that Beijing does not like.
On Dec 6 in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, CEO Tim Cook explained the delicate relationship between his company and China.
"When you go into a country and participate in a market, you are subject to the laws and regulations of that country," said Cook at the Fortune Global Forum, according to the Wall Street Journal. "Your choice is, do you participate or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. My own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena, because nothing ever changes from the sideline."
Apple has gone through highs and lows in China in the past two years. Once the best-selling smartphone in China, the iPhone has fallen behind domestic smartphones there. In response, Apple doubled down on its efforts to grow in that market, transferring executive Isabel Ge Mahe to oversee its Chinese operations earlier this year.
Despite the concessions it has made, Apple still has had to deal with unexpected headaches from Beijing. Chinese cellular companies abruptly cut off cellular connection to the new Apple Watch in October because the wearable had a SIM card that did not allow Beijing to track those users, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But the biggest scrutiny of Apple came after the company took down more than 600 virtual private network apps from its App Store in July. VPN apps allow Chinese residents to circumvent government surveillance. Senators Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, wrote a letter to Cook to ask questions about the move.
"We are concerned that Apple may be enabling the Chinese government's censorship and surveillance of the Internet," wrote Cruz and Leahy.
Apple's vice-president of public policy, Cynthia Hogan, responded. She said Apple is committed to promoting "fundamental rights, including the right of free expression, by being engaged even where we may disagree with a particular country's law."
That has been Cook's stance during his tour in China this past week. Cook was in the eastern Chinese city of Wuzhen on Sunday to give a keynote speech at the World Internet Conference.
"The theme of this conference – developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits – is a vision we at Apple share," said Cook, according to Bloomberg. "We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace."
While Cook preached openness of the Internet, other Chinese attendees sang a different tune. Wang Huning, a new member of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee in China, which governs the country, preached President Xi Jinping's belief of cyber sovereignty – where a country can freely decide how to govern the Internet, even if it means censorship – according to the New York Times.
Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba, doubled down at the same conference, saying companies will need to respect and work with Beijing's rules and demands.
"When you determine to come, prepare for it. Follow the rules and laws and spend 10 years," said Ma. "This is not a market that you can come and go." — San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service