Tim Cook’s naïve optimism that China will relent on VPN ban soon

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, who has endured a difficult week after appearing to endorse Chinese internet censorship, has dug an even deeper hole for himself after inexplicably claiming that he is optimistic VPNs would return to App Store in China.

Cook and Apple endorse Chinese internet censorship

Cook has faced almost universal criticism after appearing at the much-maligned ‘World Internet Conference’ in China. The event, which is designed by the Chinese Communist Party to promote their vision of online sovereignty and widespread, systematic internet censorship, has attracted a number of senior tech figures over the years, drawn by the profits on offer in the Chinese market.

But there has been shock that the CEO of Apple, a company which has developed a strong reputation for support the privacy of its users online, would choose to appear. And his speech, in which he talked about working with China towards “a common future in cyberspace”, has been seen as lending tacit approval to Chinese internet censorship.

Cook spoke earlier this week in defence of his speech and in an attempt to shake off the barrage of negative publicity it has caused.

Cook displays either naivety or a fundamental lack of understanding  

Addressing the Fortune Forum in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, Cook said “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.”

Given that his comment only amounted to two sentences, there is still a lot there to address. Firstly, Apple hasn’t removed just a couple of things from the App store in China. It was revealed in a recent letter to US Senators that they have blocked no fewer than 674 VPN apps this year alone.  They have also recently removed Skype from the Chinese App Store.

The next question is where this great ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’ comes from. Because no one else with even a basic understanding of the online freedom situation in China shares it.

Under the regime of current Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, internet freedoms in China have been significantly undermined. Censorship has grown significantly, there have been arrests for people using VPNs to circumvent the censorship regime, the e-commerce industry has been targeted, and online news reporting has been curtailed.

That is without mentioning the cybersecurity legislation which handed sweeping new powers for online surveillance to Communist Party authorities. At the recent ‘People’s Congress’ Xi Jinping was given another term as President and with no successor lined up, seems likely to be ruling China for the foreseeable future.

In that environment, there is no realistic hope for an easing of Chinese internet censorship and surveillance for the foreseeable future. For Tim Cook to suggest there is betrays his chronic lack of understanding of how the Chinese Communist Party operates.

Under Xi Jinping, online freedom will only recede further

It is possible that behind the scenes they have given him reassurances. But that means nothing. The Chinese Communist Party recently publicly committed to not militarising the islands they have occupied in the South China Sea. But they have been doing so for years and continue to do so now.

The priority of the Chinese Communist Party is the survival of the party. They do not operate in the best interests of their people or with any respect for the international community. And, I hate to break it to Tim Cook, but that includes Apple too.

His supposed optimism is at best naïve and at worst a cynical ploy to put Apple’s profits ahead of its principals. That would be fine if Apple didn’t try to make such a big point over their support of online privacy. Because they do, it looks like rank hypocrisy of the very worst kind.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who has been openly critical of Apple’s decision to remove VPN apps from their Chinese App Store told CNBC Apple was in danger “of not fulfilling its obligation to promote free expression and other basic human rights.”

By blocking VPNs in China, Apple is complicit in Chinese censorship and should not pretend otherwise. In the absence of support from big tech companies, Chinese citizens are left to hope that the VPNs themselves can succeed in keeping services going in China once the official ban comes into force in February next year.

They will do their very best, but it is a dark time for Chinese internet freedoms, and the accommodating stance taken by Tim Cook and Apple has made it even more challenging.

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