top of page

Tim Cook’s Bad Day on China

Apple speaks out boldly at home, but is silent about Beijing’s growing oppression.

By William McGurn

December 5, 2022

Apple CEO Tim Cook in Cupertino, Calif., Sept. 7.


Apple CEO Tim Cook has been taking a beating over his company’s coziness with Beijing. It comes amid protests across China against the government’s strict Covid-19 lockdowns, including at a factory in Zhengzhou where most of the world’s iPhones are made. Hillary Vaughn of Fox News perfectly captured Mr. Cook’s embarrassment on Capitol Hill Thursday when she peppered him with questions:

“Do you support the Chinese people’s right to protest? Do you have any reaction to the factory workers that were beaten and detained for protesting Covid lockdowns? Do you regret restricting AirDrop access that protesters used to evade surveillance from the Chinese government? Do you think it’s problematic to do business with the Communist Chinese Party when they suppress human rights?”

A stone-faced Mr. Cook responded with silence.

Businesses have been answering these kinds of questions at least since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when China trade and investment became a hot political issue. Typically American companies say something about how trade and foreign investment are creating jobs and contributing to a better life for the Chinese people.

But that kind of answer doesn’t work for Mr. Cook. Not anymore. Apple is a technology company. It isn’t selling sneakers or hamburgers like Nike or McDonald’s. One issue these Big Tech giants have that other companies don’t is whether their technologies are being co-opted by Beijing to suppress the Chinese people.

In April, for example, the senior Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, Brendan Carr, wrote a letter questioning Apple’s decision to drop the Voice of America mobile app in China. He quoted Amnesty International’s Asia director as characterizing Apple as “a cog” in China’s “censorship machine.”

But the issue attracting the most attention now has to do with AirDrop, an Apple file-sharing tool that many Chinese had been using to coordinate demonstrations beyond the reach of Beijing’s internet censors. AirDrop works by letting iPhone users who are within 30 feet of each other exchange photos and documents without going online. On Nov. 9, Apple released a software update only in China that limits to 10 minutes the amount of time files can be shared among iPhone users who are not in each others’ list of contacts. This robs Chinese iPhone users of a tool they had been using to organize protests.

Mr. Cook’s problem: When coupled with his outspokenness at home, the accommodations on China make him look like a hypocrite.

In 2015 a couple inspired by Islamic State opened fire at a San Bernardino, Calif., office, killing 14 people. Though gunman Syed Rizwan Farook was killed in a shootout with police, authorities recovered his iPhone 5c at the scene.

Trouble was, it was locked, and the iPhone was programmed to delete all its data after 10 failed attempts to log in. The Federal Bureau of Investigation asked Apple to help the government get into the phone, but Mr. Cook refused, saying the company couldn’t possibly participate in something that “threatens the security of our customers.”

That isn’t the only public stand Apple has taken to underscore that it’s a moral lodestar, not just another grubby business seeking profits.

When Georgia last year passed new reforms to ensure the integrity of its voting system, Mr. Cook happily joined a chorus of corporate leaders who condemned the state for supposedly engaging in an effort to suppress the vote of African-Americans and other racial minorities.

In 2015, when Indiana passed protections for religious freedom, he called it an effort to “rationalize injustice.” After George Floyd’s killing in 2020, he decried “deeply rooted discrimination” and noted how iPhones, with their built-in cameras suitable for filming police malfeasance, were a force for advancing social progress.

Mr. Cook, of course, has the right to speak out and enlist Apple in whatever causes he wishes, at least as long as his shareholders don’t object. But on China the market is exacting its own revenge.

Reports are that Apple is trying to reduce its overreliance on supply chains that run through China. Like many businesses that have prospered by doing business in China, Apple is now finding that dependence leaves them highly vulnerable when things go wrong. Mr. Cook’s many critics are only too happy to pile on. True, it’s unlikely Congress will come up with solutions that will actually improve things, and some of the criticisms lack an appreciation for the realities of doing business in China. Then again, Mr. Cook has never displayed much regard for messy details when he’s the one doing the condemning.

CEOs can always justify their operations by pointing to the economic benefits their companies bring to the communities in which they operate. Or CEOs can go the progressive route, presenting their companies as moral paragons. But they can’t have it both ways: holding themselves up as courageous in places where the risk from speaking out is low while keeping quiet about real oppression in places where speaking out can really hurt the bottom line.


bottom of page