Apple and China

I’ve been watching this scene since the mid-1990s, and that’s for a very personal reason. I’ve started touch-typing on Apple computers (not Macs! Machines before that…) in the early 1990s, and I was the first pupil in the whole class to have completed the course. (Asian kids are miracle-makers, all of us were told… It kind of worked for me as well!)

In 1991 I put these into action by launching what was then Microsoft Works 2.0 on a Mac Classic running System 6.0.7. Never mind the black-and-white interface with multitasking optional (not part of the standard features set); it worked. But that also meant that I was using a system which was alien to much of mainland China.

In or around 1992 I was treated to a bit of Mac VIP treatment when I was given free access to a Mac Performa in what was then Scitech Yaohan, a shopping centre (since rebranded) by the International Tower, not far from the embassy area by eastern central Beijing’s Jianguomen sub-district. The Mac was a “for-show” machine only, designed to impress visitors, but I was the only one who could make sense of the machine (even with a Chinese language OS, I got where the Control Panels were). These were back in the day when less than a decade back, the (costly!) Mac II costed you upwards of 100,000 Chinese Renminbi Yuan. In these days, you were considered a big earner if you earnt even 0.8% of that (that figure was when they started taxing you). Unless you were a millionaire returning to China from overseas megalopolises, there was no way to afford the Cartier-cum-Longines of personal computing (so to speak).

Too Costly, Too Poor Support: The 1990s

After Vincent Tai: A Lost Apple for China

Early + Mid 2000s: Prices Come Down

2007-2009: Pivotal Years for Change

2010s: The Devices for the Rest of Us (Elites)

Zukunftsmusik: At Zhongnanhai’s Whim

Apple’s China story may really depend on the whim of the Chinese government.

The recent alleged hacking of iCloud is just the least of our concerns (as is also the case of taking down apps designed to circumvent content controls). Apple’s increased popularity may make it a target of Beijing when it comes to who remains in the country.

The government has increasingly become nationalistic to the extent it is teetering on that cusp of the ever-dangerous X word: xenophobia. Increasingly paranoid in the final race between Beijing and DC, the former has decided it needed its own OS, has blocked Cupertino from being on the wish list of many in government, set loose a word-of-mouth campaign to state functionaries that “they’re spying on us, Apple is”, and humiliated Apple in nationwide staged TV shows.

At the moment there is no sign that Apple’s closing down shop in China, but the hostile environment that made Google pull out of China may soon head that way when it comes to what Apple’s going to see next in China. If a “Chinese dream” was exclusively made up of Chinese elements, where foreign brands were eliminated or severely compromised, Apple might be looking at newer-still markets… India, Africa, Latin America might have something better for Apple.

Apple’s CEO has seen a sea-change when it comes to its interactions with Beijing. The proud and arrogant attitude of Steve Jobs — flying over China without landing there — has seen a major about-turn with the pro-Beijing Tim Cook. That’s good news for Chinese consumers, but it is increasingly bad when it comes to making decisions where compromise and censorship are options on the table. Of course this is no suggestion Apple “bravely breaks Chinese laws” (which is that one thing that it needs in order to be kicked out of the country), but just how much backward it can bend (on its own initiative!) is a shocking development.