To understand the troubled relationship between America and Communist China, it helps to tell the story of two Apples.
The first story begins on a fishing boat, where a 12-year-old boy named Jimmy Lai hid as a stowaway to reach Hong Kong from Guangzhou, China, in 1951.
Beginning as a child laborer earning $8 a month, Lai became fluent in English, founded a garment empire called Giordano, then established a publishing giant that includes Hong Kong’s largest independent newspaper, The Apple. A staunch defender of free speech and democracy, Lai is now in jail, facing a likely life sentence on trumped-up charges.
The second Apple is the company that probably manufactured your smartphone. Tim Cook, the tech giant’s current CEO, was born in Alabama in 1960. After earning a master’s degree in business from Duke, he joined Apple as vice president for worldwide operations in 1998 — and quickly began planning to shift the company’s production operations to locations near Guangzhou, Jimmy Lai’s birthplace.
As a result, Apple shed labor unions, US wages and strict environmental and safety regulations while winning investment subsidies from China. In the bargain, Cook became one of the world’s richest men, wielding enormous political influence. Yet the American Apple’s entanglement with China would soon work to the detriment of the other, pro-democracy Apple.
In fall 2019, massive demonstrations broke out in Hong Kong in support of rule of law and against the extradition of citizens to mainland China.
Apple newspaper owner Lai was among the demonstrators. Apple, the US tech giant, had an app in its store that helped dissidents by showing where they and the police were in real time.
This drove the Communist bosses in Beijing crazy. They called on obedient mainland news publications to call for the app’s deletion from Apple’s store. Cook’s Apple got the message — and did just that.
Worse, Cook’s firm said it had done so voluntarily, when everyone knew that, with all its production capacity located in China, Apple was scared of what would happen if it didn’t comply. The world learned how much of a hostage Apple Corp. really is to the Chinese Communist Party.
Cook and his Apple loudly tout liberal values and minority rights in the West. But when it comes to China’s imprisonment of a million Uighurs in concentration camps, the repression of Tibet, the killing of Hong Kong’s free society and the stifling of international probes into the origins of the novel coronavirus, Cook’s Apple keeps curiously mum.
The silence is damning. And it mirrors the corrupt bargain the West has struck with the Chinese Communist Party, which is open about its hostility to our values.
In Article Nine of the resolutions of the Communist Party’s Congress in 2013, dealing with the “ideological sphere,” China’s leaders told the world exactly how they felt. They declared complete opposition to Western values, to constitutional democracy and to the Western understandings of universal human values, freedom of the press, human rights and civil society.
They likewise declared war against the Western conception of rule of law and against any checks on the power of the party.
In other words, the West’s China problem, encapsulated by the two Apples, won’t be solved with better trade and climate deals. Rather, the growing conflict between the Free World and the Chinese Communist Party is fundamentally ideological.
The crux of the problem is that Beijing will do business with the Free World, and even allow capitalists to make money in its marketplace, but only if they at least tacitly accept Communist values and live by them in their dealings with China.
Here’s the question American and Western elites must answer: How many Apple iPhones — or any other cheaply manufactured products — are worth the freedom of not just Jimmy Lai, but oppressed Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese?
Clyde Prestowitz served as a senior trade official and economic adviser in the Obama, Clinton and Reagan administrations. He is the author of “The World Turned Upside Down: America, China and the Struggle for Global Leadership” (Yale, 2021).