China protests: Apple CEO Tim Cook confronted over restricting AirDrop access

Apple chief executive Tim Cook has refused to answer questions about the company’s decision to restrict access to a tool used by protesters in China.

“Do you support the Chinese people’s right to protest?” a Fox News reporter asked Mr Cook, who was at the White House on Thursday to attend a state dinner honouring French President Emmanuel Macron.

Mr Cook remained silent and kept walking as the reporter continued to ask questions.

“Do you regret restricting AirDrop access that protesters used to evade surveillance from the Chinese government?” she asked.

“Do you think it’s problematic to do business with the Chinese Communist Party when they suppress human rights?”

Apple has been under fire for restricting access to AirDrop within China last month.

AirDrop allows users to share content between Apple devices using the wireless connection between phones.

It had become an important tool used by protesters in China and Hong Kong attempting to circumvent pervasive internet censorship.

But a November 9 update to Apple’s global iOS operating system included a hidden change applying only to iPhones sold in mainland China.

The change, first noticed by Chinese readers of fan site 9to5Mac and reported by Quartz, made it so AirDrop could only be set to receive messages from “everyone” for 10 minutes before switching off.

According to Bloomberg, Apple intends to roll out the change globally next year – but the decision to rush the change unannounced only in China has raised eyebrows.

It was widely speculated that the move was prompted by the previous month’s “Bridge Man” incident, where a protester hung banners in Beijing just days before the Communist Party Congress reading, “Go on strike at school and work, remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping.”

Images and references to the banners were quickly censored, but Vice News reported the messages had spread on the Shanghai subway via AirDrop.

Anger over China’s zero-Covid policy – which involves mass lockdowns, constant testing and quarantines even for people who are not infected – has sparked protests in major cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

But demonstrators have also demanded wider political reforms, with some even calling for President Xi Jinping to stand down.

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‘Apple is a private company’

On Wednesday, a top Biden aide was pressed on what critics called a double standard in the treatment of two major big tech firms amid the China protests, and Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter.

Retired Admiral John Kirby, the National Security Council co-ordinator for strategic communications, was asked to clarify the White House’s stance toward Twitter and Apple as it has made overtures to keep a “close eye on” Twitter regarding misinformation while being muted toward the latter’s restriction of AirDrop within China.

Mr Kirby told Fox News the White House has been clear on a global level that citizens should be able to “communicate freely, openly, transparently and reliably”, saying the administration has been strong in that regard toward Iranians protesting their own authoritarian government.

“Apple is a private company,” he said.

“They have to make decisions, and they have to speak for those decisions. But here at the White House, here in the administration, we want to see that individual citizens, whether they’re protesting or not … are able to communicate freely and openly.”

Host Martha MacCallum pushed back, asking why the White House won’t publicly say something toward Apple while Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed the administration is “keeping a close eye” on Musk and Twitter – despite it also being a private company.

“Why would [Jean-Pierre] say that from the podium … and not call Apple out for helping the Chinese government to suppress their own people’s ability to communicate?” she asked.

Mr Kirby replied the White House has been “very clear and consistent” on the issue of freedom of communication, adding that Apple should indeed speak about what it is doing, “but we … aren’t in the business of telling private companies how to execute their initiatives”.

“But Twitter is a private company, too,” MacCallum pressed. “So why is Twitter getting one treatment and Apple is getting another, is my question.”

Mr Kirby argued the two companies represent different circumstances.

“You’re talking about the potential for perhaps foreign investment and involvement in the management of Twitter,” he said. “That’s a different issue than what we’re talking about here, which is a business decision by Apple with respect to how one of their applications is being used.”

In response, MacCallum said Apple is itself being “influenced by that of a foreign government” in Beijing, in how it has changed policies in a way that helps the authoritarian regime.

Mr Kirby later said he has no “communications to speak to specifically” with Mr Cook or other Apple executives.

Earlier on Wednesday, at least one Republican politician reached out to Mr Cook and demanded answers on the decision to restrict AirDrop in China.

“This isn’t the first time Apple has taken action to limit iPhone capability to conform with the CCP’s surveillance policies,” South Dakoda Representative Dusty Johnson wrote in a letter to Mr Cook. “Apple is an American-based and founded company – what’s the deal?”

Tiananmen protester speaks

Meanwhile, a leader of the Tiananmen Square protests said on Thursday that the demonstrations in China explode the “myth” of a “harmonious society” and reveal deep discontent with Beijing’s rulers.

Wang Dan, who was jailed and then exiled after the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement was crushed, told reporters in Japan that the string of protests also proved that younger Chinese are not politically apathetic.

“In the past 30 years there’s a myth that the younger generation or middle class were really satisfied about the government, but these protests show us the truth,” he said, speaking in Tokyo. “So this is a big significance of this movement, it reveals the truth.

“The truth is that it’s not a harmonious society … there’s already a lot of conflict between society and the government.”

Wang said he believed the unrest would continue, and could signal a new “protest era”.

“The first feeling that came to my mind when I witnessed the incredible protests across China was the spirit of 1989 has come again, after 33 years,” Wang said.

“Watching videos of Chinese university students chanting, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ has brought me tears and hopes.”

Wang was a 20-year-old student during the Tiananmen movement, which ended with the government setting tanks and troops on peaceful protesters.

He was placed on the government’s most wanted list and was imprisoned before going into exile in the United States.

But he described those protesting today as “more brave” than his generation because in the late 1980s the political climate was less severe.

“This time it’s quite different. The environment is very bad,” he said, calling the protests a “heavy blow” to Mr Xi’s reputation, weeks into his historic third term.

“That’s why I think maybe, maybe eventually he will decide to crack down because he cannot afford to lose face.”

– With Fox News and AFP

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