An eye for an eye famously leaves everyone blind, but if I’m honest, I’ve never been one to turn the other cheek.
I’m sympathetic to the notion that when someone slights you, particularly when you don’t deserve it, you’re within your rights to respond in kind. It’s a cold world out there, and nice guys generally finish last.
However, if China decides to go ahead with what the financial media on Thursday described as an “unprecedented blockade” on iPhone usage by employees of government agencies and SOEs, the effort to hit back at the US for squeezing Huawei could easily backfire to the extent it underscores the urgency for Apple of moving more production out of the country and suggests to everyday Chinese that their government may be poised to further curtail access to Western products and culture.
The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday reported that China banned employees at central government agencies from using iPhones for work, and also from bringing them to work. Similar reports proliferated on Thursday, as competing outlets endeavored to get more information on the scope of the effort.
Apple is already keen to diversify away from China for a laundry list of obvious reasons, and India is an attractive locale for Tim Cook to expand local production. Xi decided not to attend the G-20 in India this week. Some suggested bilateral frictions were partly behind the decision.
Do note that a ban on the use of specific consumer devices or technology at government agencies and state-affiliated enterprises means something different in China than it does in nations where the line between the public and private sector is less blurry. In some sense, every enterprise in China is a state enterprise.
The Party won’t adopt that line of reasoning in any expanded iPhone ban, but the restrictions would likely apply to a large, diverse range of entities and operations, and reports suggested some organizations may forbid employees from owning an Apple device even outside of work. Last year, the Party instructed government entities to replace foreign PCs within two years.
As some analysts were quick to point out, Apple has implicitly suggested its operations are safe in China and that it maintains a cordial relationship with Xi’s regime — or as cordial as relationships can be between Western companies and the Party in the current geopolitical environment.
Far be it from me to question Cook’s managerial competence, but if he truly believed that Apple, the symbol of American corporate dominance, would come away unscathed in what’s shaping up to be a Cold War-style clash of ideologies for the history books, he was both mistaken and naive.
For Chinese consumers, the worry is that Xi might eventually move to curtail access to popular foreign brands completely. I want to be absolutely clear that this is pure speculation on my part, but given the world’s experience with authoritarian regimes operating command economies during ideological clashes with the West, it’s not totally far-fetched to suggest that China could ban iPhones and boot Apple from the country altogether as part of a broader push to exorcise what Xi plainly believes are insidious Western ideals.
Coming quickly full circle, I don’t blame Xi for responding. But rightly or wrongly, any effort to ostracize Apple will be viewed not just through the lens of tit for tat national security escalations, but also as an example of an authoritarian government closing its doors and otherwise pulling the curtain.