How Apple, Tim Cook give into China while pushing back against the US

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Free-world CEOs, presidents and prime ministers are now being forced by China to make fundamental choices. Do they stand for free speech, the rule of law and human rights — or for primarily making money?

Over the past 30 years, Western leaders have dreamed they lived in an earthly paradise where they could stand for both. But the ruling Communist Party of China under paramount leader Xi Jinping is now making it increasingly clear that if you want to do business with his country, you’d best embrace the party line.

Take Apple. The world’s most valuable brand is a powerhouse in Washington, DC, maintaining armies of lawyers and making large donations to the political parties and to lobby organizations like the US-China Business Council. It has instant entrée to the White House, Congress and any other center of American power.

In 2001, Apple closed its California production lines, dismissed its American workers and moved production to China, where investment subsidies were high, wages low, and labor unions and environmental rules nonexistent. Apple has since admitted to avoiding $41 billion in US taxes. Now the tech giant — led by CEO Tim Cook — has truly made out like a bandit, becoming the world’s most valuable corporation in the process.

More than a decade later, the FBI was investigating cases of domestic terrorism and desperately needed to crack information on captured US-owned iPhones. Despite FBI demands and court orders, Apple refused to assist. FBI tech experts did eventually manage to open the phones, but no thanks to Apple.

Contrast Apple’s refusal to help the FBI with its actions during the Hong Kong free speech demonstrations in 2019. Apple’s app Hong Kong enabled freedom demonstrators to track police in the city. But after the People’s Daily newspaper, which is controlled by the Chinese Community Party, expressed outrage over the app, Apple suddenly removed it from its store, saying that it was doing so “voluntarily.”

What’s more, a New York Times report this month revealed that Apple has ceded legal ownership of its customers’ data in China to a company controlled by Chinese government officials. The analysis also found that roughly 55,000 active apps, including ones that give users access to news, private messaging and websites blocked by the Chinese government, have vanished from Apple’s App Store in China since 2017. “Just as Mr. Cook figured out how to make China work for Apple, China is making Apple work for the Chinese government,” the report concluded.

Cook is a champion of liberal causes like LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter and extra easy voting methods in America. But nary a word escapes his lips regarding human rights for the marginalized Uyghurs of China or voting rights for the undermined citizens of Hong Kong. 

Nor is this forked tongue malady limited to global CEOs. Prime Ministers like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel have struggled not to say anything more negative about China than that it is raising “grave human rights concerns.” Of course, New Zealand exports meat and milk to China while Germany exports cars and machinery. 

Ultimately the issue is crystal clear. How many iPhones, how much milk, how many Mercedes are worth the loss of free speech and rule of law demanded by Beijing? 

The Chinese Communist Party uses the economic dependence of corporations and other countries on the Chinese market to discipline and bend them to the party’s will. 

Free-world leaders must find ways to reduce their dependence on China. Australia is already showing how as it begins to successfully diversify its markets. A free-world buying consortium could extend this entrepreneurial approach, with democratic countries creating a fund for buying and redistributing free-world exports being blocked by Beijing. Similarly, they could provide incentives as Japan is already doing for diversifying production and assembly operations away from China. Initially, some costs might rise, but surely improving human rights on a global scale is worth something. 

As for US corporations like Apple, they must be put on notice that they can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. CEOs who champion civil rights at home should be called out for sabotaging them abroad. 

Clyde Prestowitz is president of the Economic Strategy Institute and author of several books, including his latest, “The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership.”

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