In a disturbing and slightly surprising development, it has been confirmed that the New York Times’ English and Chinese-language apps have been removed from the Chinese version of the Apple app store. This is disturbing for the obvious assault on free speech it represents. However, being that the country in question is China, it is not shocking. If you’ve been prescient and have a VPN, you can still access the NYT on your iPhone. If you don’t use a VPN, maybe now is the time to get on board with one.
What is somewhat astonishing about this latest censorship move is that China has taken action against such a left-leaning news outlet, which often reports favorably on the nation. If there were apps for conservative news outlets, say the New York Post, Washington Times or Foxnews, it would not be the least surprising if they were banned. So what is going here?
The reason for the repressive move against the NYT may go back more than four years, to when the NYT wrote an exposé on the hidden wealth of then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. If so, it seems a long time to harbor a grudge and seek retribution. Commenting on the dust-up, NYT spokesperson Eileen Murphy opined that,
“The request by the Chinese authorities to remove our apps is part of their wider attempt to prevent readers in China from accessing independent news coverage by The New York Times of that country, coverage which is no different from the journalism we do about every other country in the world.”
The pulling of the apps is likely to cause more financial damage to Apple than the NYT. The ban by China could represent a big blow to Apple’s bottom line, for Apple has many tentacles deep into the Chinese market due to the largesse of the ruling regime. Though 2016’s sales of products, including apps, were below 2015’s record numbers, the Chinese market is still a very fertile one. Moreover, cheap Chinese labor is pivotal to Apple’s hardware production and business model.
Because the government has provided billions of dollars in benefits and subsidies to Apple, there is a compelling reason to play ball with it, despite the most recent imbroglio, and other past censorship crackdowns. One such example was the shutdown of the iTunes Chinese movie and book stores soon after they opened. However, many people, both inside and outside the tech/media industry, think that Apple should be more circumspect about its business practices, and less focused on the bottom line in every instance.
That readers in China can still access The Times‘ reporting using a VPN or other software that circumvents the country’s so-called “Great Firewall,” doesn’t detract from the importance and impact of Apple’s caving to the Chinese government. Does it raise questions about how far a company like Apple will go to increase its business? How much of its soul is it willing to sell to grow its bottom line? Where does this kind of behavior lead?
The only factor that may change Apple’s behavior is a shareholder revolt at the persistent practice of sacrificing principles for profit. This is unlikely, however, because if its stock price continues to flourish, scruples will be relegated to the dustbin as free speech flounders.