Apple and China

Apple has a China problem.

Apple’s dependence on China runs very deep. Not only is China a lynchpin of Apple’s supply chain, but they’re also a huge market for Apple to sell its wares, second only to the US. But China isn’t a particularly great partner for a company like Apple. Sure, they had their allure in the 90s and 00s with the incredibly cheap labor and growing middle class, but the Chinese government is highly authoritarian and its human rights abuses are getting harder and harder to ignore. China has no problem meddling in the affairs of private businesses, and it’s already started to encroach on Apple to the point where one of its major selling points (privacy) is no longer something that can be counted on for Chinese customers now that a company owned by the Chinese government operates iCloud servers in China.

The issue comes up a lot in Apple-related blogs, but they mostly come with a shrug and a “what are you gonna do?” Sure, it’s a complex situation. If Apple were to move past dependence on China, it would take years of sustained effort and a willingness to lose out on a huge market. But it’s not the bloggers’ job to come to Apple’s defense on this situation; it’s Apple’s.

Let’s be 100% clear on this: this dependence on China isn’t just some unfortunate situation Apple ended up in; Apple played a prominent role in architecting the mass exodus of American tech manufacturing to China, and Apple made the decision in the 00s to make a push to also sell its products in China. From a moneymaking sense, this was a great decision and it’s made Apple quite wealthy.

Journalists will sometimes grill Tim Cook, asking why Apple isn’t making things in America and he’ll throw up his arms and tell them that Apple just can’t; the talent and infrastructure is all in Asia. What Tim Cook won’t mention here is that he personally played a primary role in moving Apple’s manufacturing out of the US and into Asia, and in the following decade China became a powerhouse of high-tech manufacturing. Apple helped make that happen!

Apple talks a huge game about privacy being a human right, but for all their interest in human rights, they don’t seem super interested in addressing the Chinese government being the source of so many of these[1]. And that’s hardly a surprise; tech companies knew about China’s human rights issues when they made the decision to move the supply chain, but I guess those concerns may have gotten drowned out by the glaring reality that there was money to be made. And I’m sure there was an assumption that through trade, less authoritarian countries would rub off on China and they’d soften up on these issues and start to run more like Western democracies.

That didn’t happen. China’s taken the capitalism of the west and grown its middle class with one hand, but they’ve been ratcheting up their authoritarianism and surveillance tech with the other hand. By trading with China we made the country richer and more skilled, and their ambitions have grown substantially. And while I don’t fault a country for wanting to grow and become a bigger player on the world stage, but if that country is also oppressing an entire group of people and putting them in forced labor camps, that’s a huge fucking problem.

Apple is a deeply principled company, and their relationship with China increasingly stands out as antithetical to the company’s ethos. And I know many who would point to Apple’s relationship with China and say “see? Apple’s just like any other corporation.” And it’s true; Apple does plenty of corporation-y things. But they are deeply principled; you don’t just accidentally end up with the kinds of high-quality products Apple makes without being a company full of people who really care about that kind of thing.

It’s okay to expect a lot of Apple. They have ridiculous resources. It’s okay to expect a lot of their leadership. Tim Cook’s a big boy, he can handle the criticism. Apple can handle the challenge of removing its entanglements with China and pushing on them to be better. But they’re not going to take on that challenge if they don’t think that their customers care.


  1. China is hardly alone in these human rights abuses, and I’m sure their propaganda is full of whataboutism that points out the US’s historic track record here. And they wouldn’t be incorrect, but it doesn’t make their current human rights abuses right.  ↩

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