Companies that comply with Chinese demands risk setting dangerous precedents and they make it easier for other national leaders to exact similar demands. Apple, which has come under fire for supporting the Chinese government during the Hong Kong protests, has recently been criticised in India after censoring its local Apple TV programmes, just as freedom of speech and assembly is being threatened under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
During the coronavirus outbreak China has been doubling down on its censorship of online forums as it seeks to control narratives around the disease. On 31 December, a day after doctors tried to warn the public about the then unknown virus, YY, a live-streaming platform, added 45 words to its blacklist, according to Citizen Lab. WeChat, a messaging app with a billion users, also censored coronavirus-related content.
Censored material included references to Li Wenliang, a doctor who had been silenced by police for trying to warn about theoutbreak, and neutral references to efforts on handling the outbreak.
The death of Li started a digital uprising (#WeWantFreedomOfSpeech), with people calling for online censorship to be lifted.
Kevin Latham, senior lecturer in social anthropology at the SOAS, University of London, China Institute, said: “The narrative on censorship has shifted over the weeks a bit. At the beginning it was clear they were much more open and quicker to act publicly than with Sars in the past – they appeared to have learned that lesson.
“However, once the story about the death of Li Wenliang came out, that narrative was undermined to some degree.”
There is little reason to expect things to change, in other words.
What’s the story so far? Apple blocks more than 370 apps in China, according to Chinese security experts Great Fire, including the virtual proxy networks that allow people to vault over firewalls. The company has failed to lift restrictions despite renewed pressure arising during the pandemic. Its decision to block a map app used by protesters in Hong Kong, taken a few months before, was also called out by critics.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook has defended the decision as borne of legal necessity.
“We would obviously rather not remove the apps but, like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business,” he said in 2017. “We strongly believe participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there and in other countries as well.”
Wang said: “They say they are simply complying with local laws when we all know what they really care about is market access.”
Apple is not the only tech company criticised for capitulation. Last year, Google tried to build its own filtered search engine for China but the idea was scrapped following an outcry from its employees.
Jeremy Daum, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School, says that while strict laws do exist, many statutes are written in a vague and sweeping manner, so it can be hard to know what the legal obligations really are. “In some cases it can be as vague as not publishing content that harms the nation’s interests,” he said.
Daum highlights the importance of distinguishing between enforced censorship and corporate acquiescence.
“Complicity sounds like they share a common goal of censorship, [but] the companies’ goals are profit, so they are not complicit in motive – It’s acquiescence,” he said.
The challenges to the power dynamic will centre on China’s influence to change content coming from beyond its borders. Apple TV has already issued guidelines to its programme makers to avoid criticism of China.
Ultimately, harming freedom of expression hits society’s most vulnerable, and those with the weakest voices, the most.
“Censorship isn’t just about politics,” said Karen Reilly, a community director at GreatFire.org, which tracks censorship in China.
“Censorship blocks people from reaching their communities and this is especially harmful to marginalised and young people. Online spaces are sources of support. If you grow up with censorship, your connection to your own culture may be cut off.”