Don't Be Too Hard on Apple for Bending to China

Several weeks ago, while traveling in China, I couldn’t read Bloomberg View because the censor had blocked the website. But that didn’t stop me. I turned on my VPN -- virtual private network -- and connected by going around the Great Firewall. I could access Facebook, Twitter, Google and the New York Times the same way.

Unfortunately, in the past few weeks, the Chinese government has moved against such VPNs, most notably asking Apple Inc. to stop selling them through its app store. Apple acceded, and the response of the critics has been pretty sour.

Mike Butcher at TechCrunch said, “Apple should have stood its ground.” Martin Johnson, who monitors Chinese censorship, claimed, “Apple is now an integral part of China's censorship apparatus.” The Farhad Manjoo article in The New York Times referred to Apple’s decision as a “dangerous precedent.”

Those remarks are unfair to Apple, which in difficult circumstances probably did the right thing. China has already shown Facebook Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. that it is willing to do without their services. How would it help the world to have Apple join that list, either partially or in full? I don’t approve of Chinese censorship, but the VPNs are in fact illegal. It hardly seems unreasonable for a major company to follow the laws of the country it is operating in, even if those laws are unjust or imprudent.

Go back to the banned status of Bloomberg View in China, which is also a ban on some of my writings. (My educational videos are also blocked because they are on YouTube.) Does that mean I should stop having my books translated into Chinese, or that I should refuse to speak at Chinese universities, on the grounds that they do not present all of my written product? No, hardly anyone behaves that way, nor should they. I prefer to try to communicate with the Chinese -- including listening to and learning from them -- as much as I plausibly can.

Some Western authors who write books on sensitive topics of Chinese politics don’t want their work translated in mainland China because they know it will be altered. (Taiwan and Hong Kong may be options.) That makes sense, but demanding that any country allow “full carry” of all relevant goods and services is going too far. Amazon Inc., for instance, wouldn’t ship Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” in Germany when it was banned, and hardly anyone blamed Amazon for that decision, whether or not they agreed with the now-reversed policy.

Furthermore, Apple is still doing plenty to help Chinese citizens counter their censors. It sells chat and messenging apps in China that allow for encryption. Apple iPhones and iPads, bought in the U.S., bypass Chinese censorship altogether when they use the 4G network (not Wi-Fi); presumably some Chinese citizens have bought these products and use them. Perhaps most important, VPN apps are still available in China through other means, or overseas, and Chinese citizens can download them and combine them with Apple products to help bypass censorship. Apple has hardly backed away from its mission of tying the world together.

At this point the company probably has learned some patience; many of the previous Chinese government attacks on VPNs ended up being reversed or neglected, so perhaps Apple is expecting it can wait out this round and restore the apps later. Or Apple might think this is an appropriate topic for U.S. trade negotiators to raise, and it doesn’t want to lock Beijing into an oppositional stance.

To the extent Apple is criticized, other institutions in the future might avoid having anything to do with controversial products in foreign nations, which will be worse for everyone. If Apple had never offered the VPN apps in the first place, no one would be talking about the company right now. The danger is that this lesson is learned all too well.

Might Apple at least have publicly complained about the actions of the Chinese government? That’s a judgment call, and of course the company could still do so. The case for a public corporate complaint is strongest either when the government might back down or when civil society might be emboldened by the company’s support. Subjective judgments come into play here, but note that the Chinese government often cracks down more when publicly challenged, and the democracy movement in China isn’t exactly on the verge of triumph.

I understand why commentators have been so harsh on Apple. The tech companies are highly profitable giants, and there is a sense that they ought to exercise more social responsibility. Maybe so, but each individual case differs. When it comes to China and censorship, the low drama route is often what social responsibility dictates.