China’s VPN Crackdown: In Defence of Apple, Sort Of
On Saturday, news came that Apple has been drawn into China’s ongoing VPN crackdown, reportedly removing several dozen related apps from its Chinese App Store. They have naturally come under pretty intense fire for agreeing to do so, but it’s not clear to me that they had any meaningful choice.
We’re not used to thinking of Apple as an underdog these days, but China’s leverage over them seems almost total. The government controls not just access to their second biggest market, but almost their entire supply chain. Unconstrained by independent law, it could interfere freely with either. Even short of all-out bans, the possibilities might include state media campaigns blasting Apple for arrogant defiance of Chinese law, among other evils; blocks of the App Store and Apple’s other online services; disruption of their devices’ internet connections; disruptive factory inspections or shutdowns up and down the supply chain; or millions of units stuck in a web of red tape ahead of a major product launch.
Given recent political trends and the government’s enthusiasm for cautionary examples, there seems little reason to expect much restraint. How better to scare others into line and trumpet China’s growing influence than to humble the frequently biggest company in America and the world? And Apple would have no effective recourse. Their fierce resistance to the FBI’s demands over iPhone encryption last year has been a popular point of contrast, but the law in China is a knife, not a shield, and the country’s politically controlled courts simply offer no arena for any similar battle.
Arguably, it’s still Apple’s fault for getting into this position in the first place, and Tim Cook’s in particular, as he led the shift to China-based contract manufacturing earlier in his career. If they thought then about any attendant political risks, they may well have miscalculated that gradual liberalisation would make them ever more remote. Wishful thinking or self-serving rationalisation, perhaps, but this was (and perhaps still is, despite all recent evidence) a widely and sincerely held view.
Another reason they may have underestimated these hazards is that content was far less central to their business back then. The App Store didn’t exist, and music and film sales were relatively insignificant sidelines. The now glaring risk of political pressure snuck in later with their strategy of acting as sole software gatekeeper for their now primary platform. As John Gruber commented at Daring Fireball:
The App Store was envisioned as a means for Apple to maintain strict control over the software running on iOS devices. But in a totalitarian state like China (or perhaps Russia, next), it becomes a source of control for the totalitarian regime.
Anyway, here we are. Beijing has them by the balls with one claw and the tongue with another. They can’t even wriggle. As Farhad Manjoo wrote at The New York Times, they could at least squeak, voicing public opposition to the new rules even if forced to comply with them. At the very, very least, they could have taken a different tone when notifying developers of the removal. The boilerplate warning from the App Store Review Guidelines that “apps that solicit, promote, or encourage criminal or clearly reckless behavior will be rejected” was deeply tone deaf in this context, echoing the kind of language Beijing often uses to justify oppressive policies. It could easily have been omitted, and a generally more tailored and sympathetic tone taken.
In the medium term, Apple could gain some freedom by diversifying its supply chain beyond China. (Manjoo suggests that the mere threat of this could be used as a lever. I suspect it would snap.) There are other possible reasons to do so, from appeasing nationalists at home to avoiding rising Chinese labor costs. But it’s not just the cost of labour that made a China-based supply chain attractive in the first place: it’s also the integration of links, and enormous flexibility even at barely conceivable scale.
Of course, even if all this could be overcome, the relative freedom might be awkward: having a choice would force them to make one.