Apple's rocket-like ascent to become the world's most valuable company has brought with it the booby prize of being a pawn of international diplomacy. Apple and other U.S. tech giants are being targeted by China (and Russia) as tensions between all three countries rise over spying allegations.
On Wednesday, word leaked out (via Bloomberg) of China that Apple and its devices had been excluded from a government-approved procurement list. That means Apple's popular iPhones, iPads, and Macs can not be purchased by China's immense governmental and bureaucratic machine.
Ten Apple products were on a June version of the list, which is maintained by China's National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Finance. Those devices were removed in July's version of of the list.
It's possible Bloomberg got it wrong. A Chinese publication reported (Google Translation) on Thursday (via AppleInsider) that the initial report was based on "speculation and misunderstanding," and that the secret list in question is merely a list of energy-efficient devices for government offices. According to that report, Apple may merely have forgotten to apply for inclusion.
Sure, that's possible, but either way, but it was just in June when China Daily, a newspaper owned by the government, was demanding that Apple, Google, Microsoft and other U.S. companies be punished for being complicit in U.S. spying.
Being left off a procurement list is merely the latest in a long-running campaign against Apple by the Chinese government. Whether a deliberate exclusion, a bureaucratic mishap, or passive-aggressive intimidation, Apple has often been the subject of Chinese government interference.
Apple has been the target of government-owned television exposés, and in 2013, Apple was accused of smuggling software into China, not paying taxes, and distributing porn. In July, state-run China Central Television called the iPhone a national security threat, saying that the "frequent locations" feature in iOS 7 could potentially be used to track Chinese citizens, gain knowledge of China's economics or "even state secrets."
Apple's usual response is to patiently explain why these complaints and charges are wrong. When Apple was accused of ripping off Chinese consumers with substandard warranty practices, Apple apologized and modified its warranty to match local requirements.
The problem, however, is that none of these issues have anything to do with Apple's actual practices, business model, products, policies, or operations. The issue is politics and escalating tensions between the U.S. and China. In an era where commerce is dominated by multinational companies, especially in tech, U.S. tech giants are increasingly being made pawns of international diplomacy.
On Wednesday, it was reported that China launched an anti-monopoly probe against Microsoft in July, including raids on Microsoft offices in four Chinese cities. In addition, Windows 8, as well as products from U.S.-based companies like Kapersky Lab and Symantec have also been taken off government procurement lists. Dell and HP both remained on the list, however.
The Spy Who Complicated Apple's Business
The backdrop for all of this is spying. The entire planet knows that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is spying on it, the entire planet. At the same time, the U.S. has accused the Chinese military of conducting industrial espionage, with an entire branch dedicated to stealing U.S. intellectual property and other corporate secrets.
Traditionally, such spying has largely remained in the realm of diplomatic channels, with one country or another occasionally complaining about another with little or no press attention. Even before Edward Snowden's revelations of U.S. spying, however, the U.S. began naming names, especially Chinese names, and that's when things started getting more serious.
The U.S. prevented two major Chinese companies—Huawei and ZTE—from selling to the U.S. government, a move echoed in other Western-aligned countries. Both companies were called a security risk citing their connections to the Chinese government.
In May, the U.S. went so far as to indict five Chinese military officers, accusing them of stealing U.S. trade secrets. The indictment has reportedly infuriated the Chinese government, and excluding Apple, Microsoft, and other U.S. firms from selling to the Chinese government is retaliation, pure and simple.
It used to be large industrial concerns like steel makers, automakers, electricity generator makers, and the like who were the instruments of war-by-other-means. Today, however, technology has become king, both in terms of economic impact and the generation, storage, and transmission of digital information.
More importantly, technology is dominated by U.S. companies. For China, it is becoming increasingly important to develop home-grown technology, even if that really means stealing it from the West. At the same time, China wants to teach the U.S. a lesson for daring to name names, and that means hurting U.S. tech giants in their pocketbooks.
The situation is vastly more complicated than that, of course. For one thing, a million or more Chinese workers are employed to make some of the very equipment being banned from government lists. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions more make many of the components that go into those devices.
Apple generates billions of dollars of economic activity in China, and Apple's is a very aspirational brand in China, and that includes the millions of people who work for the government.
Even more broadly, the economic interests of both countries are incredibly intertwined. China makes most of our stuff, we indirectly employ much of China to make that stuff, and China owns more than $1.2 trillion in U.S. government debt.
But this is the way the game of international diplomacy is played. When one country gets caught doing something, that country either exposes wrongdoing by its accusers, trumps up charges, or lashes out at economic interests. Russia is a great example of this, where Vladimir Putin's government demanded Apple's source code for iOS and OS X to look for evidence of spying*.
Apple has become so big, so profitable, and so important, it is a ready-made, go-to target. China's escalating campaign against Apple and these other U.S. companies isn't likely to simmer down while tensions between the U.S. and China creep back towards cold war levels. And those tensions aren't likely to ease while China's military is pilfering U.S. trade secrets and the U.S. is running the largest surveillance program in the world.