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Apple, accused of supporting China's censorship, is now facing new criticism

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When a man hung banners on a Beijing overpass in October to protest the government, an army of censors wiped it from the Chinese internet. Some people got around that by using Apple's AirDrop, which allows iPhones to communicate directly with other iPhones. It's one of the few remaining ways to share information without censorship in China, or it was. NPR's John Ruwitch reports on the pressure facing a leading American company.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Outside Apple's glass-walled visitor center at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., a graduate student from China is lying in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk, bundled up against the chilly air.

How do you feel right now?

WANG HAN: A little bit hungry, yes. But except that, I feel good.

RUWITCH: Wang Han was on day five of a weeklong hunger strike against Apple.

WANG: Apple is colluding with the Chinese government to suppress our basic human right.

RUWITCH: After that protest on the bridge in Beijing, Apple made it harder to send files widely through AirDrop. A company spokesperson said the change was part of an operating system update in December and aims to prevent things like people sending naked photos to other passengers on airplanes. But Wang is dubious.

WANG: So we think the - Apple had got some order from the Chinese government.

RUWITCH: NPR emailed Apple to ask if China requested the change. The company has not replied. For Wang, the problem with Apple in China is bigger than just AirDrop. There's been unrest among workers at a factory in China that makes iPhones, highlighting difficult conditions. And for years, Apple's kept tools that help people circumvent censorship in China off the App Store inside the country.

WANG: We are here to support the people in China for their courage.

RUWITCH: And he's not alone.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Right now...

RUWITCH: The next day, about a dozen people gathered with Wang to show support in the pouring rain.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Apple, Apple, shame on you.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Apple, Apple, shame on you.

RUWITCH: One of them was Zhou Fengsuo. He's a human rights activist and former student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests 33 years ago.

ZHOU FENGSUO: Yeah. This is the most exciting time for me since 1989. For the first time, we are hearing people's call for political change.

RUWITCH: He's referring to the bridge protest and street demonstrations around China last month against the government's tough COVID rules. Apple, he says, is not helping.

ZHOU: They are calling for freedom. But a U.S. company like Apple, the most profitable company in the world - and they are aiding CCP in restricting this voice.

RUWITCH: Multinationals have always had to walk a fine line in China, and it's not unusual to come under fire for things like factory conditions and pollution. But the political risks have been rising, with souring U.S.-China relations as the backdrop. And Zhou says Wang Han's hunger strike represents something new.

ZHOU: This protest connected all the issues together. For me, I think the most important change is that younger generation - you know, like today's hunger striker, Wang Han - they are picking up the torch.

RUWITCH: Apple so far has not commented on Wang's hunger strike, which ended two weeks ago. Doug Guthrie worked for Apple in China for several years and advised company executives on Chinese politics. He says Apple's supply chains in China are the key to its profitability.

DOUG GUTHRIE: There's a deep partnership between companies like Apple and the Chinese government, and you got to do what they want.

RUWITCH: The company has moved some assembly to places like India and Vietnam, but Guthrie calls that hand waving about diversifying. Relocating supply chains will take years. And he says that means Apple is beholden to China. And now it has to contend with pressure from Chinese citizens who aren't happy about that.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.