Dissident Asks Apple to Take Stand Against China Birth Policies

| News

Chinese dissident and activist Chen Guangcheng has asked Apple Inc. to take a stand against his native country's strict one-child policy. China limits couples to one child per family, and requires employers to participate in monitoring pregnancies in their work force—Mr. Chen said that companies like Apple can help pressure the government of the People's Republic of China on the issue.

“Apple in China should take a very active role,” Mr. Chen said in an interview with Bloomberg. “There’s a huge social responsibility for these international corporations like Apple.”

Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng via Wikimedia Commons

Mr. Chen, who is blind, rose to international prominence after a harrowing nighttime escape from house arrest. He was arrested and said his family was threatened after he began speaking up against China's one-child policy.

The escape from his house, which had multiple guards, included a solo flight through the city, and he eventually wound up at the U.S. embassy. After a semi-tense standoff, Mr. Chen was allowed to leave China and come to the U.S. Bloomberg said that this is the first time he has spoken about his company's birth control policies since arriving in the U.S.

He and other activists want a meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook, and they want Apple and other international companies like Cisco to stop cooperating with Chinese government family-planning officials and to stop reporting women who are pregnant.

On this issue, Apple's Supplier Responsibility Report stated, "24 facilities conducted pregnancy tests, and 56 facilities did not have policies and procedures that prohibit discriminatory practices based on pregnancy."

The company also noted that it classifies, "these practices as discrimination—even if permissible under local laws. At our direction, the suppliers have stopped discriminatory screenings for medical conditions or pregnancy. We also required them to establish clear policies and procedures to prevent recurrence."

Mr. Chen and his cosigners want Apple to take a more proactive stand on the issue. In the letter written to Tim Cook, the said, "Apple is in a unique position to take a leadership role in standing up against coercive family planning in China.”

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This is what happens when you're the world's most valuable company and one of the highest profile brands ever—Greenpeace, labor activists, and now Chen Guangcheng target Apple for their causes because doing so nets them and/or their cause far more publicity than they could get by targeting, say, John Deere, Dell, or even IBM.

There will no doubt be many other as time marches on.

The question, of course, is what Apple's responsibility in this or any other social issue. Google, for instance, shut down its Chinese site rather than submit to Chinese censorship. Microsoft still does search business there, most likely cooperating with that same censorship.

Apple is likely to face similar issues at some point with its App Store in China, and there could some day be similar issues with iOS or OS X. What should Apple do should that day come? Cooperate? Pull out of China?

What if Apple was required to install code that allowed the PRC to remotely access every iPhone, iPad, or Mac? That hasn't happened, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. Should Apple kowtow to such a massive invasion of privacy or should it risk being forced out of the world's largest market?

On the one-child policy front, should Apple force its third party suppliers to prohibit access from family planning officials (i.e. the pregnancy police)? Those are some tricky waters to navigate, and then some.

Those waters are fraught with additional peril, too, in that abortions—let alone forced abortions—have such massive political and social baggage in the U.S.

Speaking of which, the U.S. government officially deplores China's forced abortions, but obviously hasn't drawn a political line in the sand over the issue. The same is true for most Western governments.

Should Apple, Cisco, or any other U.S. corporation be held to a higher standard?

Be polite, civil, and respectful when discussing this stuff, or I will wield my digital red pen with abandon and great vigor.


Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Corrections: “company”—> “country”.
Mr. Chen was allowed to leave China and come to the U.S. Bloomberg said that this is the first time he has spoken about his company’s birth control policies since arriving in the U.S.

But on the practical front… A two-child policy now would double the young customer base for iPhones later and should push factory wages down as well as more of these young adults compete for jobs making iGadgets. Totally in Apple’s interest to get behind this!

Bryan Chaffin

Really, Brad? That’s your tack?


For a Westerner, the one-child policy seems typically draconian, but it’s actually a socially responsible step (I know nothing about the implementation) from the country with the world’s largest population.  I seem to remember from some 30-odd years ago that many nations applauded it, while the rest of the world exercise whatever personal restraint it could muster, among its populations.

I sorta never got around to making up my mind about the right or wrong of it; I know, convenient, right?  There are already too many people (7 Billion +) sharing the planet’s resources, and without this rule, that number would likely be closer to 8 Billion.

I am aware that there are ethical and human-rights at issue here, but the alternative could lead to Oblivion Now in the most miserable of ways, wholesale starvation.

Hope that’s not to “xenophopic.”

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

What should my tack be? On one hand, as you point out, any successful company doing business in China is going to become a target for all sorts of human rights demands beyond their power or interest to do anything about. On the other hand, it is truly a disgusting policy that leads to not just sex selection abortions but infanticide and abandonment of girls, not to mention an abnormal proportion of boys that will lead to terrible social problems as they compete for mating rights later in their lives. So I go with dark humor. For the record, Samsung should support the same thing. Google, OTOH, will probably be in a better position to socially hack that system into oblivion.


A one-child policy seems eminently sensible. Even a two-child policy would eventually lead to a decline in population, but the social burdens of the extra individuals would be far greater.


turn on american television and see families like “honey boo boo” and it makes me wish the US had a 0 child per family rule.


While I share concerns about overpopulation, the one-child policy is not merely draconian, but it’s also not necessary. In most developed nations, the combination of women’s rights, access to birth control and medical care, and the economic incentives that change children from cheap labor to an economic drain on a family, are enough to drop the birth rate to below replacement levels.

Apple can’t change that. What needs to change are international trade policies which allow corporations to exploit labor costs between countries, and an economic system that can deal with deflation while maintaining quality of life for the population.


China is starting to enter a demographic squeeze where the number of productive adults relative to total population will go down to first world levels while labor productivity will probably remain significantly below first world levels.

They are already facing the problem of a shortage of eligible Chinese women resulting from the shortsightedness of all those couples who aborted/gave up/abandoned/killed their daughters.  The smarter parents would have kept their daughters knowing that she will grow up being able to pick and choose whom she marries.

The Chinese leaders already know the demographic time bomb that’s going to explode in the next couple of decades.  Foreign companies who harangue them about this are needlessly endangering their businesses.



A loaded topic, to be sure.

There are two trains of thought here; China’s one child policy and Chen’s request for Apple to engage China on changing it.

As the former is one that has largely been shown to be unnecessary following the validation of what is known in public health as the ‘demographic transition’ (i.e the idea that, as a population’s vital statistics, notably infant and child mortality, decrease, or as a population shifts from rural to urban living where the cost of living is higher, household size, specifically the number of children per family, will decrease - a phenomenon that we have documented in my urban field site, in which we see smaller household sizes than in rural areas), I will confine my comments to the latter.

As you point out, Chen’s request is a function of Apple’s prominence as a change agent in the Chinese and global economies. This is not the first request (an earlier one being the change in work hours and conditions for Chinese labourers), and likely not the last; indeed, Apple can anticipate these request becoming ever more audacious in scope. The question is, how best to respond.

There will be no easy answers. Of one thing Apple can be certain, failure to respond will be taken by social activists as avoidance of responsibility and obligation; while any positive response will be taken, with varying degrees of resistance, as interference with the status quo and therefore a threat to established interests.

Apple will need to pick its battles carefully, as no two will ever be exactly the same. My quick thoughts are these:

One level of decision making is the decision of withdrawal from the market vs constructive engagement. In deciding which to choose, one has to look at the objective and whether either lends itself to achieving it. With respect to China’s one child policy, a withdrawal from the Chinese market is unlikely to affect that policy one whit. Apple is yet to have that formidable of a presence in that market, and the Chinese have other tech options. This would favour continued engagement.

Another, is, if constructive engagement is conducted, what are the immediate, intermediate and longterm of objectives? Are there external and/or internal factors working to bring about similar reforms? If so, is there opportunity for synergy; if not what are the odds of achieving those objectives as a single player?

Finally, for a for-profit company, what resources are needed to effect those changes, and how would the deployment of those resources, let alone the achievement of the objective, affect one’s business?

All these lead back to the original point of picking one’s battles; is this a fight that Apple, or any entity for that matter, should fight? Only Apple can decide that, ultimately, although their client base can advocate one way or another.

In the absence of external factors, such as state-sponsored and coordinated pressure (bilateral nationstate relations, UN, other global forums), this is not likely to be a fight that Apple can win, and it would have much to lose in trying to change a national policy. On the other hand, Apple might have a chance of easing policy application for its employees, so long as it shouldered all related responsibility (benefits, pensions, etc), and in so doing, apply internal pressure for change by example, as it has done with the employees at Foxconn. At day’s end, Apple will have to decide if this is a thing about which they care, and fight that they think they can win, in however modest a scale.


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