China’s Concerns Over Tech Decoupling: Lessons from Russia’s Isolation

China's Concerns Over Tech

Recent moves by Apple and other Western tech giants to limit their business ties with Russia in response to the Ukraine conflict have sparked concerns among product consumers in China. The key question on their minds is whether a similar scenario could unfold in China, potentially disrupting their access to essential products and services.

Apple, Google, Microsoft, and other tech giants acted swiftly to curtail their business operations in Russia following President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. These actions included suspending product sales and exports, restricting services like Apple Pay, and removing Russian state news outlets RT News and Sputnik News from the Apple Store outside of Russia.

China, where there are longstanding tensions over the self-ruling island of Taiwan, has closely observed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global response. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has expressed the belief in the “reunification” of Taiwan with mainland China, and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve this goal, although the Taiwanese government has stated that there are no imminent signs of an attack.

While Chinese officials reject any direct comparison between Taiwan and Ukraine, some online commenters in China, where social media often reflects nationalist and pro-Russian sentiment, have criticized Apple’s actions in Russia and suggested that China should prepare for similar scenarios.

Questions have arisen, such as, “If China were to decide to ‘liberate’ Taiwan one day, can we be certain that our iPhones wouldn’t be deactivated?” Such concerns highlight the fears surrounding the potential impact of international conflicts on technology access.

However, experts suggest that the situation is substantially different in China compared to Russia. China serves as a vital manufacturing hub for Apple, and it represents the company’s third-largest market after the United States and Europe. Detaching from China would not be a straightforward decision for Apple.

Kendra Schaefer, head of tech research at Trivium, a policy research group based in Beijing, emphasized the complexities of such a move. Chinese regulations mandate that Apple and other companies store Chinese customers’ data on servers within the country. Therefore, leaving China could mean not only losing customers but also relinquishing access to all customer data.

As of now, Apple has not responded to inquiries regarding this matter.

Prior to the Ukraine conflict, China was already pursuing a national strategy of “tech independence,” placing a strong emphasis on indigenous innovation and the attraction of foreign talent. Xi Jinping has underscored the importance of tech self-sufficiency in recent years, especially as U.S. administrations under both Trump and Biden have imposed stricter regulations on Chinese tech giants like Huawei and ZTE, citing national security concerns.

Angela Zhang, director of the Center for Chinese Law at the University of Hong Kong, noted that the U.S. sanctions on Huawei and ZTE during the U.S.-China trade tensions had alerted Chinese policymakers to the significance of technological self-sufficiency. However, she also pointed out that achieving full self-sufficiency in many advanced technologies, including semiconductors, involves long and complex supply chains, making it a costly and challenging endeavor.

Russia’s growing isolation from Western tech companies has further fueled calls for tech independence from the West, often referred to as the “great decoupling.” On China’s equivalent of Twitter, Weibo, one user expressed concerns about reliance on Apple’s cloud storage services and the potential risk of deactivation.

In conclusion, while China is indeed looking to reduce its dependence on Western technology, achieving full tech self-sufficiency remains a complex, long-term endeavor. The recent events in Russia have highlighted the importance of pursuing these goals while acknowledging the challenges ahead.