Apple recently removed some of the virtual private networks from the App Store in China, making it harder for users there to get around internet censorship. Amazon has capitulated to China’s censors as well; The New York Times reported this week that the company’s China cloud service instructed local customers to stop using software to circumvent that country’s censorship apparatus. While caving to China’s demands prompts a vocal backlash, for anyone who follows US tech companies in China, it was anything but surprising. Apple and Amazon have simply joined the ranks of companies that abandon so-called Western values in order to access the huge Chinese market.
Doing business in China requires playing by Chinese rules, and American tech companies have a long history of complying with Chinese censorship. Every time a new compromise comes to light, indignation briefly flares up in the press and on social media. Then, it’s back to business as usual. This isn’t even the first time Apple has complied with Chinese censors. Earlier this year, the company removed New York Times apps from its Chinese store, following a request from Chinese authorities. “We would obviously rather not remove apps, but like we do in other countries we follow the law wherever do we business,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook during Tuesday’s earnings call, in response to the vanished VPN apps.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of American companies that have aided Chinese censorship. In 2005, Yahoo! provided information that helped Chinese authorities convict a journalist, Shi Tao. Shi had sent an anonymous post to a US-based Web site. The post contained state secrets, according to authorities, and Shi was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Also in 2005, Microsoft shut down the blog of a Chinese freedom of speech advocate. A year later, Google agreed to censor its search results in China. Internal documents show that Cisco apparently saw China’s “Great Firewall” as a choice opportunity to sell routers at around the same time. In 2006, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and Cisco faced a congressional hearing about their Chinese collaboration. “I do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night,” said representative Tom Lantos at the time.
It turns out that some corporate leaders will sacrifice a good night’s sleep to reach hundreds of millions of internet users—and potential customers. In 2014, LinkedIn launched a Chinese version of its service with the understanding that doing so would curtail freedom of expression. Users who posted politically sensitive content would get a message saying that their content would not be seen by LinkedIn members in China.
In a 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner was upfront about the Chinese bargain. “We’re expecting there will be requests to filter content,” Weiner said. “We are strongly in support of freedom of expression and we are opposed to censorship,” but “that’s going to be necessary for us to achieve the kind of scale that we’d like to be able to deliver to our membership.”
Perhaps LinkedIn figured that, as a business networking site, it could dodge political controversy. But when it comes to China, it’s never that simple. LinkedIn’s community, after all, includes China-based journalists. It wasn’t long before users complained about receiving notices from LinkedIn that their posts were not available in China. Just this month, the journalist Ian Johnson posted one of those notices on Twitter. Twitter is blocked in China, but some access it with circumvention technology. In the past, China-based activists have used Twitter to get their message to the outside world. Twitter is a rare American platform that offers relative freedom of expression to the Chinese who are willing to use it.
Bending to China’s will doesn’t guarantee success. China remains a tough market, even for those willing to censor. Derek Shen, formerly president of LinkedIn China, recently stepped down after the company had less than impressive results in China. Problems apparently included missed sales targets, and failure to attract new users. In 2010 Google declared wholesale defeat in mainland China, citing problems with censorship and cybersecurity.
Censorship isn’t the only challenge: US companies now have to contend with fierce Chinese rivals. Apple has struggled against domestic Chinese competition, including smartphone powerhouses Oppo and Vivo. Uber flailed against incumbent ride-share service Didi Chuxing before eventually selling its China operations to its local rival. When it comes to the internet, Chinese users aren’t necessarily longing to jump over the Great Firewall to gain access to overseas sites. Many are content with domestic products, particularly WeChat, a wildly popular messaging app.
Still, US companies will always try to break through in China. Facebook has eyed the mainland for a while. A Facebook entry may appear unlikely, especially as China temporarily blocked its WhatsApp messaging service. But CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears willing to go the distance; Facebook has reportedly worked on a censorship tool for the purposes of getting China’s approval. Conventional wisdom once held that Facebook would not risk the public outcry following a decision to self-censor in China. But is that really true? All those other companies got away with it, and Facebook probably would too.
So will Apple. The company might take a beating in China, but it won’t be because of its moral choices. That doesn’t mean that the Chinese internet outlook is bleak. Despite pervasive censorship, information manages to get through. Some circumvention tools will vanish, and others will appear. For every sensitive terms that gets blocked, people will find different words to replace them
The spread of the internet will continue to expand the space for expression in China—just not necessarily thanks to the American companies willing to do whatever it takes to gain a foothold there.
Emily Parker has covered China for the Wall Street Journal and been an advisor in the US State Department. She is the author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are, a book about the power of social media in China, Cuba, and Russia.
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