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Chinese Authoritarianism Is Being Emboldened by U.S. Tech Companies

Capitalism and a lack of global leadership are helping expand the oppressive Chinese surveillance state

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In November of 2017, Apple’s policy chief, Cynthia Hogan, wrote a letter to Senators Patrick Leahy and Ted Cruz asserting that Apple is “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.” This was in response to a year’s worth of reports about how Apple was bowing to the authoritarian state’s authoritarianism, amid growing criticisms of the company’s deafening silence as the revelations continued to pour in.

A new report from Wired makes it clear that these problems did not remain in 2017, and Apple’s letter to the Senate did not tell the whole story. Per Wired:

Apple and Microsoft censor information in China as a condition of accessing the country’s lucrative but circumscribed population of more than 800 million netizens.

For Microsoft, that means keeping content the government deems sensitive out of Bing search results and off of its business networking site LinkedIn. Apple polices its app store differently in China than in other parts of the world, at the government’s direction. The company has said that it removes VPN apps that could be used to bypass China’s so-called Great Firewall, which blocks access to many overseas sites. A tool launched in February by Greatfire.org, which monitors Chinese censorship, indicates that anonymity tools and apps about Tibet and Falun Gong that are available in versions of the app store around the world do not appear in China’s.

Now, this is anything but a simple case, because even a multinational corporation as powerful as Apple can only have so much sway over a sprawling government like China’s. Apple’s claim that they can “promote fundamental rights” while still “disagree[ing] with a particular country’s law” sounds nice in theory, but when we change it from “particular country” to “China,” the harsh reality becomes much more difficult to deal with.

China is an increasingly bellicose authoritarian state which has built the most comprehensive surveillance network imposed on a citizenry in mankind’s history, and they are currently housing over one million Muslims in concentration camps. If China was not a central cog in the global economy, and was a much less powerful state like Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, they would be considered more of a global pariah than a key player in global relations. This is a problem for states to solve, not companies.

But companies like Apple still have an immense amount of power in this ordeal. China makes $8.46 billion off the iPhone, and Apple is a major customer of their endless line of electronics gulags. If Apple truly did want to try to change government policy so as to allow apps about Tibet and Falun Gong in to their app store—like they are in app stores around the world—they have leverage against the Chinese government. Granted, moving production of Apple’s core businesses from China to another country would be unbelievably expensive, but Apple is sitting on $225 billion in cash that has been growing for some time, and if they are serious about trying to force political change upon authoritarian China so as to make their Chinese market more like the rest of their markets around the world, they have the cash on hand to finance a political line in the sand.

Expecting companies to stand up on principle is naïve and unrealistic. That’s not what capitalism is about—the market is simply a vessel from which to extract revenue. Apple profits immensely off of China and vice versa, and so long as profits are the primary motivation here, nothing will change. The Chinese government will not let U.S. companies like Apple or Microsoft run their business the way they want to, and the fact that these companies are kowtowing to Chinese censorship tells you all you need to know about where all the power (and willpower) lies in this dynamic. China knows that by threatening Apple and Microsoft’s bottom lines with a ban like Facebook received, they can keep tech companies in line with their authoritarian policies. At the end of the day, if profits are threatened, capitalism has taught us that the market will not hesitate to sacrifice moral codes in order to preserve this golden calf.

Again, making China less authoritarian is not Apple and Microsoft’s job—but if the international community ever does want to get serious about trying to make China into a state that doesn’t have millions in concentration camps and 1.3 billion under oppressive surveillance—these companies are going to be a central part of the fight, given how close a relationship they have with the Chinese government.

Diplomacy is an incredibly nuanced (and oftentimes superfluously stupid) dance between multiple countries that takes years of planning, conspiring and investment. China is accelerating in this dramatically authoritarian direction because no one has demonstrated any will to stop their worst instincts this century, and perhaps in a more boldly democratic world, the Chinese surveillance state would be blunted by international efforts to free the Chinese people from the Great Firewall.

Given how incredibly dependent Chinese manufacturing is on the U.S. consumer market, we have a lot of power if we ever wanted to try to squeeze some democratic progress out of them. But alas, we have Donald Trump as president, so any moral authority the American state has on this topic is far, far less than what Apple and Microsoft have. Like the U.S. and the rest of the world, China is hurtling towards a more authoritarian future, and all our companies know how to do in this situation is make money off of our rapidly deteriorating dystopia.

Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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