This year has seen Apple widely criticized for aiding China’s censorship push by removing VPN apps from its App Store in China. Company CEO Tim Cook painted a rather rosy picture of the situation with comments at the Fortune Forum in Chinese city Guangzhou.
“My hope over time is that some of the things, the couple of things that’s been pulled, come back. I have great hope on that and great optimism on that,” Reuters quoted Cook as saying.
There’s quite a lot to unpack from such a short statement.
Firstly, Apple didn’t just remove a “couple of things” from the reach of China-based users. It would be more accurate to say a couple of hundred, but even that is under counting.
Initial reports in July, when news of the removals surfaced, suggested that around 60 apps, mostly VPNs, were removed from the Chinese version of the App Store. However, last month, two U.S. senators put the number at 674 apps in 2017, more than double the total removed last year, and they include mainstream services like Skype.
As for whether apps will be returned to the App Store, Cook is looking to positives when all signs in reality indicate otherwise.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has advanced its internet censorship push to unprecedented levels. Beyond a clampdown on VPNs began prior to this year and reached crescendo with Apple’s action in July, Beijing has upgraded its ‘Great Firewall’ censorship system, placed restrictions on live-streaming services, celebrity gossip media and interfered with messaging apps to name just a handful of key flashpoints.
While not blocked entirely, WhatsApp users found that they were unable to send videos and photos through the chat app and issues seemed to extend to WeChat, China’s most popular messaging service. The censorship seemed to be linked to the response to the death of dissident Liu Xiaobo, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who lost a battle to liver cancer earlier this month having been denied permission to leave custody to seek medical treatment overseas.
While Cook is right that “nothing ever changes from the sidelines,” it is hard to imagine China relaxing its stance on web censorship given all that has happened.
The reality is that Apple had little choice but to follow Beijing’s line in order to continue to do business in the lucrative Chinese market, but statements like Cook’s today are dangerous because they massively underplay the severity of the situation.