Our Chinese puzzle

Today's WSJ reports that Apple, one of our largest and most successful technology companies, is going to store their "keys" to the massive databases that contain all the data on Chinese citizens, in China. The article warned that this could make it vulnerable to seizure by the Chinese government. Apple was quoted as saying that they would only comply with lawful requests from the government for information on its citizens.

At what point do American values stop applying in foreign countries? And at what point does our government intervene to protect those values despite how it might affect trade?

Let's say a Chinese court asks Apple for all the emails sent by a democratic activist who is trying to organize support for democracy in China. Of course, Apple will comply. If they don't, not only could they be shut down and lose out on their market, but the government could easily seize the keys and find the information itself, under threat of police violence. So they might as well comply. So this "key" step of storing the means for the government to seize the data at will will likely ensure the "voluntary" compliance the Chinese seek.

What happens when that democratic activist gets a 50 year sentence of hard labor? What happens if he gets sentenced to death? Is Apple complicit? Is the U.S. government complicit? Does that make the American people complicit?

Why would our government be complicit? Well, first, we are allowing our companies to effectively share technology with this immoral and oppressive regime. It is possible that future Chinese leaders will be able to ferret out their secretive democratic activists more effectively using Apple's technology. So Apple may in fact be a contributor to repressing political freedom, a human right that we all have but cannot be exercised in China. They may already be doing so through voluntary compliance with Chinese information requests. According to the article, something like 85% of the requests to Apple in China were produced.

For Apple, this isn't just about protecting their future market share. Apple also uses Chinese labor to build their products. I'd bet that lever of trade was also used to coerce Apple into compliance. Does this mean that when we buy iPhones we are also complicit?

Let's say the Chinese government decides to kill any of their citizens who privately criticize their leaders. Let's say they decide, in order to stamp out dissent, they kill these citizens' families too. Perhaps to make sure dissent is never voiced, they kill the parents of dissidents too. And with this policy in hand, they go to Apple and ask them to hand over their keys so their data can be sifted through. Will Apple comply? Will the Chinese managers at the Apple plants comply with a lawful order signed by their courts? Or will they risk having these punishments applied to their families if they don't? In the article, Apple is quoted as saying that individual requests will be honored but requests for bulk data will not be. Poppycock.

I have to say, the actions of Apple are quite troubling. It is one thing for U.S. policy to be to "not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries." Perhaps trading with these countries is OK, even though we are effectively supporting their repression by increasing their wealth. Perhaps. The justification has been that if China becomes more wealthy, they will likely become more democratic and more tolerant. So far, this clearly isn't working. That theory should be scrapped. Instead, we should be thinking about the long-term repercussions of a First World military and economic power, which we helped create, by the way, which is opposed to democracy and human rights.

But when our companies set up shop, share technology, and become subject to local Chinese laws when those laws are based on an immoral and anti-democratic foundation...perhaps we should just say no. Perhaps no amount of money is worth bargaining with the devil.

And that decision should be made by our government and the American people, and not the executives at Apple.

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