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As tech companies pull out of Russia, China watches with concern

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

Much of the concern of Chinese consumers has centered on Apple, which, like Google, Microsoft and other tech giants, took swift action to curb its Russian activities after President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The company has stopped selling and exporting products, limited services such as Apple Pay and removed Russian state news channels RT News and Sputnik News from its Apple Store outside of Russia.

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

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

“If China finally decides to liberate Taiwan one day, who can guarantee that our own iPhones won’t be deactivated?” asked a user 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 crucial manufacturing center for the company and its third-largest market after the United States and Europe.

“It’s a very different story from what’s happening in Russia,” said Kendra Schaefer, chief of technical research at Trivium, a policy research team in Beijing.

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

“The question would be, does withdrawing from China mean Apple will lose not only its customers, but all of its customer data completely?” she said.

Apple did not respond to email requests for comment.

Before the war in Ukraine, China already pursued a national strategy of ‘technical independence’, with an emphasis on indigenous innovation and the recruitment of foreign talent. Xi has emphasized its importance in recent years as both the Trump and Biden administrations have tightened US restrictions on Chinese tech giants such as Huawei and ZTE that they view as a threat to national security.

“The US sanctions against Huawei and ZTE during the Sino-US trade war have already abruptly awakened Chinese policymakers to the importance of technological self-sufficiency,” Angela Zhang, director of the Center for Chinese Law at the University of Hong Kong, said in a statement. . answer questions by e-mail.

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

“It is also very expensive, if not impossible, to achieve full 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 fueled calls for China’s technical independence from the West, in what has been referred to as the ‘great decoupling’.

A commenter on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, noted that he relied on Apple’s cloud storage service.

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

“The big disconnect is inevitable,” he added.

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