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As tech companies pull back from Russia, China looks on with concern

Chinese consumers have criticized Apple and others that have cut business ties with Moscow, and say Beijing should prepare for similar tactics if it were to invade Taiwan.
People wearing masks wait in line following social
Consumers await the opening of a new Apple Store in Wuhan, China, on May 21. Ren Yong / SOPA via Getty Images

HONG KONG — Extensive efforts by Apple and other Western tech companies to curtail their business with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine have raised a question for product users in China: Could the same thing happen there?

Much of Chinese consumers’ concern has been focused on Apple, which like Google, Microsoft and other tech giants moved quickly to curb its Russia business after President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The company has stopped product sales and exports, limited services like Apple Pay and removed the Russian state news outlets RT News and Sputnik News from the Apple Store outside Russia.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the global response, have been closely watched in Asia, where there are long-standing tensions between China and the self-ruling island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said “reunification” with Taiwan is inevitable and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve it, though the Taiwanese government says there are no signs of imminent attack. 

Chinese officials reject any comparison between Taiwan and Ukraine, saying only Ukraine is an independent country. But some online commenters in China, where social media is dominated by nationalist and pro-Russian sentiment, have criticized Apple’s actions in Russia and said China should prepare itself for similar tactics.

“If one day China finally decides to liberate Taiwan, who can guarantee that our own iPhones won’t get deactivated?” one user asked on Zhihu, a Chinese social media platform similar to Quora.

Experts say it would be difficult for Apple to walk away from China, which is a critical manufacturing center for the company as well as its third-largest market after the United States and Europe.

“It is a very different story than what is happening in Russia,” said Kendra Schaefer, head of tech research at Trivium, a policy research team based in Beijing.

Schaefer pointed out that Chinese regulations require Apple and other companies to store Chinese customers’ information on servers inside the country.

“The question would be, does pulling out of China mean that Apple not only loses its customers, but all of its customer data completely?” she said.

Apple did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Before the war in Ukraine, China was already pursuing a national strategy of “tech independence,” emphasizing indigenous innovation and the recruitment of overseas talent. Xi has stressed its importance in recent years as both the Trump and Biden administrations have tightened U.S. restrictions on Chinese tech giants like Huawei and ZTE that they deem threats to national security.

“The U.S. sanctions on Huawei and ZTE during the Sino-U.S. trade war already abruptly awoke Chinese policymakers about the importance of technological self-sufficiency,” Angela Zhang, director of the Center for Chinese Law at the University of Hong Kong, said in an emailed response to questions.

But Zhang said it could take decades for China to catch up with the United States and Taiwan in the manufacturing of semiconductors and other essential components of electronic devices.

“It is also very costly, if not impossible, to achieve complete self-sufficiency of many hardcore technologies, which involve a very long and complicated supply chain,” she added.

Russia’s growing isolation from companies like Apple has added to calls for China’s tech independence from the West, which is also referred to as the “great decoupling.”

One commenter on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, noted his reliance on Apple’s cloud storage service.

“Now I’m really worried that if anything happened, a company like Apple would deactivate my phone and my data,” he said.

“The great decoupling is inevitable,” he added.