Dear Isabel Ge Mahe,
We have learned of your appointment as managing director of Apple China. At the same time, we have also learned of Apple’s decision to remove VPNs that are not registered in China from its Chinese App Store. This is a shame. These apps enable Internet users, including many journalists and their sources, to protect themselves from surveillance and to connect to sites that are banned in China, including Facebook, Google and Wikipedia.
By actively helping to reinforce the “Great Firewall”, your company obviously hopes to ingratiate itself with the authorities of a country where it does not enjoy the same dominant position that it holds internationally. We don’t doubt that the authorities will return the favour by allowing Apple to continue competing with local firms in China, and by silencing NGOs that, like China Labour Watch, criticize working conditions in your suppliers’ factories in China.
But it would be a pity if your economic opportunism stopped half-way, so we would like to offer five tips on how to better adapt Apple’s business model to the “Chinese Dream’s” special characteristics:
1/ A home screen honouring the new “Great Helmsman.” With just weeks to go to the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th congress, a home screen showing President Xi Jinping would be much appreciated as a business gesture. You will of course take care to avoid photos of Xi looking too much like Winnie the Pooh, the Walt Disney character used by Chinese Internet users to caricature him.
2/ A keyboard “with Chinese characteristics.” The iOS operating system would work just as well without the emojis that are used to bypass censorship, such as the coffin or the tears alluding to Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel peace laureate who died in detention. Similarly, the numbers 4, 6, 8 and 9 (used to allude to the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June 1989) would be rebaptised 3+, 5+, 7+ and 8+, like iPhones.
3/ A patriotic App Store. Why not restrict the Chinese App Store to state-controlled apps, such as those of the Xinhua news agency and the national TV broadcaster CCTV, the messaging service WeChat and the search engine Baidu? The Chinese public would be grateful to you for protecting them from the influence of western government propaganda.
4/ File sharing with the Party’s extended family. The iTunes and Apple TV apps allow us to share audio and video files with our entire family. Apple would pull off a planetary publicity coup by extending iPhone content sharing to the extended family that is the Chinese Communist Party. That would silence critics such as Edward Snowden who accuse Apple of reserving this privilege for the US intelligence agencies.
5/ A connected watch for every prisoner of conscience. By offering an Apple watch to every jailed activist, journalist and blogger, you would demonstrate your humanitarian commitment while allowing the international community to use the Health app to monitor exactly how long each detainee – such as the journalist Huang Qi or Liu Xiaobo’s widow Liu Xia – has been held and how much their health is worsening in detention – in real time.
If you take a look at RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, you will see that authoritarian regimes constitute a fast-growing market. Mass surveillance employs 2 million people in China alone and has a turnover in the billions of dollars. Ranked 176th out of 180 countries, China has more than 100 journalists and online journalists in its prisons. This “success” is due in part to firms such as Apple that assist its censorship.
If generalized, the pragmatic approach you have taken will guarantee Apple autocratic clients the world over and will enable its shareholders to get even richer. Human rights seem to weigh little against stock quotation in Cupertino.
With annual earnings similar to the GDPs of Finland, Ireland or Denmark, Apple could nonetheless allow itself to be a bit tougher with China’s authoritarian rulers. Or else freedom of information will be no more than a distant memory in this digital golden future you are helping to create.
Director of RSF's East Asia bureau