Several prominent tech companies and their leaders often espouse liberal progressive policies in acts of apparent self-righteousness while simultaneously eschewing the same stances when it comes to their respective conduct in China.
Derogatorily referred to as “social justice CEOs,” the activist leaders of four tech giants — Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google — regularly capitulate to Beijing’s morally-questionable demands to achieve or ensure unrestricted access to the valuable Chinese market.
Apple CEO Tim Cook sits on the board of directors for a human rights group that does not concern itself with issues in China but is a strong supporter of progressive causes. He opposes recent reforms such as the travel ban on certain countries known to export terrorism, the ban on transgender service members in the military, and the U.S. rescinding involvement in the Paris agreement on climate change. Cook claims to put his values before profit, according to a source with direct knowledge of the CEO’s behavior.
Justin Danhof, general counsel of the National Center for Public Policy Research and director of the Free Enterprise Project, attended an Apple shareholders meeting in February 2014. There he confronted Cook over his perceptible indifference to return on investment relative to climate change.
“Mr. Cook made it very clear to me that if I, or any other investor, was more concerned with return on investment than reducing carbon dioxide emissions, my investment is no longer welcome at Apple,” Danhof said at the time.
But overseas, his company has contributed to the suppression of human rights in China, specifically internet freedom. Towards the start of the year, Apple removed The New York Times news app from its Chinese app store, conceding to Chinese government regulators’ requests. This summer, the company announced that it is building a data center in China to comply with the Beijing’s cybersecurity law. The data cent will reportedly have Communist Party of China oversight. Critics contest the country’s new cybersecurity statutes, arguing it will be used to gather personal information on political dissidents or to steal proprietary trade secrets.
Apple has also removed numerous Virtual Private Networks (VPN) — a type of software that allows users to skirt the Chinese censorship apparatus — from its Chinese app store, once again caving to the intrusive demands of Chinese leadership.
“They are that powerful. They have more money than lots of national governments,” Danhof told media.
“So, with all of that power, if they are not going to be the ones to stand up to China’s internet firewall, well who the hell is? They just signaled that basically no one should ever even try.”
The tech conglomerate has been manufacturing and assembling its products in China for decades, creating millions of jobs abroad and making billions of dollars off of the growing Chinese market, which includes hundreds of millions of phone, computer, and tablet users.
Cook has stressed that his company must be involved in order to make change.
“I’ve never found being on the sideline a successful place to be,” Cook told Apple employees last year. “The way that you influence these issues is to be in the arena. So whether it’s in this country, or the European Union, or in China or South America, we engage. And we engage when we agree and we engage when we disagree. I think it’s very important to do that because you don’t change things by just yelling. You change things by showing everyone why your way is the best.”
While he has taken this attitude and approach in the U.S., the company has been less keen on opposing the Chinese. Apple has done little to change things in China, but they have generated an enormous amount of money.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was a staunch critic of Trump’s executive order restricting travel from terror-prone countries, one of the president’s first official acts. He even pledged corporate legal support to combat the travel ban. That same principled stance has yet to be seen in China.
Amazon’s partner in China recently instructed users not to use VPN services or face severe consequences. “If we discover (clients using unapproved VPNs), we will shut down services,” Beijing Sinnet Technology Co. Ltd., which operates Amazon’s cloud business Amazon Web Services (AWS) in China, told Reuters. An AWS spokesman explained that if the company intends to continue functioning in China, it has to cooperate with local partners, which often have some degree of government oversight.
China is in the process of strengthening its censorship apparatus — commonly known as the Great Firewall of China — and companies like Apple and Amazon appear to be furthering Beijing’s ambitions in order to maintain a place in the local market.
“Liberal social justice CEOs such as Apple’s Tim Cook and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos like to champion human rights and stand up to local and federal governments here in the United States when it is politically expedient and the stakes are low,” Danhof argued in a recent statement. “But when faced with pressure from a regime such as China that actively squashes the most basic of human rights – such as the right of free speech and expression – they seem all too willing to show their true colors.”
Amazon, like Apple, has been active in China for over a decade now. The company has been signing deals with Chinese partners, adding more and more Chinese sellers to its platform and putting greater pressure on American small businesses.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg previously said that internet access is a basic human right. Since his company was booted from China several years ago, he has been doing everything possible to appease the Beijing, including going so far as to consider the development of a censorship tool to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing content deemed unacceptable by the Chinese leadership. The tool is part of an internal experiment, but is a sign of how far Facebook might be willing to go to regain access to the Chinese market.
“Instead of progressively coming out and say we’d rather be banned than accept censorship demands, their position is to proactively help the Chinese government censor its citizens,” Danhof told press.
Facebook has also been accused of censorship in the U.S. on several occasions.
A former journalist who worked at Facebook told Gizmodo last year that curators for the platform’s news feed buried conservative news sites while also boosting unpopular, undeserving stories in order to push a certain narrative.
To ostensibly help with potential bias and the purported problem of “fake news,” it later decided to collaborate with Snopes, a fact-checking website that almost exclusively employs Leftists.
“Some conservatives who have been slighted by Facebook may believe we shouldn’t defend the company against such attacks on its free speech, but our movement must stay consistent on First Amendment issues,” said Danhof.
“The left has all but abandoned the concept of free speech and is now using college campuses, board rooms, the Internet and the courts to try to diminish conservative speech.”
Zuckerberg has defended or dismissed allegations of censorship both domestically and abroad, even though China has praised Facebook and other tech companies for their willingness to engage in censorship at home.
“It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation,” Zuckerberg said once about his interest in China, mirroring comments made by Cook at Apple. While the company may genuinely be determined to positively impact China, another more likely impetus could be the potential market access and advertisement revenue.
Zuckerberg has repeatedly gone out of his way to please the Chinese. He has learned Mandarin, gone jogging through the smog-filled streets of Beijing, joined a high-profile board for a top Chinese university, held important meetings with Chinese officials, and even asked the president of China to give his child a Chinese name. But his company has had very little success in the country. Facebook recently attempted to stealthily introduce an app into the Chinese market, but it has been poorly received by local customers
Zuckerberg has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to do whatever necessary to gain access to China’s 700 million internet users, often putting his cause in more noble terms and downplaying the possible profits.
While Facebook’s leadership extends a friendly hand to Beijing, Zuckerberg has been a regular critic of Trump’s policies, specifically the travel restrictions for certain terror-prone countries and the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change.
When it comes to China, he has been rather silent.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai was an outspoken critic of Trump’s travel ban. Calling the situation a “dark time,” he said “our values remain the best guide.” Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders, strongly protested the ban at San Francisco International Airport and Google’s Mountain View campus. Former Google CEO and current CEO of parent company Alphabet Eric Schmidt was also critical of the president’s decisions.
“They are going to do evil things,” Schmidt said of Trump early on in his presidency.
Google withdrew from China in response to a string of cyber attacks and concerns over free speech, but before it did so, the company actively censored search results for Chinese users at the request of the Chinese government for several years.
The company’s motto is “don’t be evil,” but one wonders how heavily it was on the company’s mind when it entered the Chinese market. “We concluded that although we weren’t wild about the restrictions it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all” Schmidt explained in 2006, when the company first entered China.
“We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil,” he added.
When Google first began operations in China, the company said it would carefully monitor conditions in the country, but Google quickly backed off its original statements.
“I think it is arrogant of us to walk into a country where we are just beginning to operate and tell that country how to run itself,” Schmidt said in 2006.
Two years later, Schmidt told reporters in Beijing that the company had no plans to press the Chinese government on censorship, as doing so would be rude.
Google supposedly found its moral compass after several arguments with Beijing, but some analysts argue that Google was on the way out in China because Chinese competitor Baidu dominated the domestic search engine market in China. When Google ultimately pulled out of China, it’s revenue in the country was estimated to be around $300 million, a fraction of its $22 billion in global sales. Some observers suggest that the tech behemoth’s withdrawal was a business decision rather than a principled one.
Google, however, dismissed such accusations, asserting that they were simply trying to do the right thing.
Google’s leadership has since indicated a desire to return to China.
“We left in 2010 because they had strict rules on censorship,” Schmidt told USA Today last year.
“We keep trying. I spend a lot of time trying to reopen it.”
“We want to be in China serving Chinese users,” he added without indicating what concessions the company might make to return to China.
Censorship has become much more severe since the company left.
The Fall Of American Tech Companies In China
Declining market shares is a challenge for all tech companies interested in or presently operating in China. Were Google or Facebook to re-enter the Chinese market, they would likely face fierce competition from companies like Weibo and WeChat, Chinese alternatives to Facebook and Twitter, and Baidu, China’s version of Google.
Apple already faces challenges from Chinese competitors, like Huawei, that receive state subsidies and regulatory support, and Amazon is to a certain extent in the same situation. While Amazon is an e-commerce giant in the U.S., it controls roughly one percent of the market share in China.
Not only is the Chinese government suspicious of foreign search engines and social media platforms, considering them potential tools for subversion, but China’s business practices are also not conducive to long-term foreign operations.
“It doesn’t seem very wise long-term strategy to give the Chinese what they want when you are facing this uphill climb to maintain your position in China,” Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on the Chinese economy and U.S. economic relations with Asia, told media.
He explained that China’s strategy is to develop a market through foreign investment, build up its own competitor base, and then drive out the foreign companies that helped build the market.
“You have two choices, you can be kicked out or you can be coerced,” he remarked.
“That is a long-standing Chinese pattern.”
Apple appears to already be in a downward spiral, as revenues just dropped for the sixth straight quarter.
Scissors explained that “a lot of companies should think about” leaving the Chinese market or consider de-emphasizing the market. “These companies should all be thinking about how to deal with a Chinese market that doesn’t work for them anymore, where they are not allowed to make the money they made in the past or that they hope to make in the future,” he explained.
So why are these virtue-signaling CEOs so keen on operations in China if they have to compromise on their morals to enter and may eventually be driven out by questionable Chinese business practices?
“If you get a big enough short-term payoff, it’s worth it,” Scissors told press.