I will state up front that, despite the title of this article, I am not looking to stray into a political discussion here. I will say that I don’t personally agree with the stances that Apple is taking in regards to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but I do understand them. Like all companies, Apple and its CEO are responsible to their shareholders, which puts them in some difficult situations. I also understand that Apple’s business there is part of a much bigger and more complex situation that involves many large US and Western corporations, spans decades, and can’t be easily unraveled.
All that said, regardless of whether you agree with the actions of Apple and Tim Cook regarding China, it is hard to look past the hypocrisy in them. They aren’t alone, either. The National Basketball Association has also spent a week getting bashed by politicians and pundits on all sides here in the US for the same basic reasons. What do both Apple and the NBA have in common? Both organizations shifted from a fairly politically neutral, non-committal status to becoming politically and socially active. Both have also been VERY self-congratulatory about their new-found virtue, in the process.
What both Apple and the NBA discovered this week is that there is a potential downside for an organization taking political and social stances in public. When you do, you open yourself up to criticism whenever you fall short or appear to act in ways that contradict your previous statements. You know, like when you zip your mouth, take actions when you are told to do so, and toe the Communist Party line when billions of dollars are on the line.
The fact is, Apple took up political and social causes under Tim Cook’s leadership that weren’t going to cost them in the US and Western Europe. They might have been seen as somewhat controversial at the time, but they did not open themselves up to widespread criticism. Cook’s biggest mistake was openly bragging about these actions and how much the company cares about all of its users. When you go on record multiple times using the phrase “Human Rights,” you had better be ready to back up the talk. However, he and his executive team didn’t have the vision to see the potential minefields ahead.
Cook going on the record (at least internally at Apple) yesterday to defend the company’s recent removal of an app used by protesters in Hong Kong was his biggest misstep to date, and he is being rightly taken to task for it. It’s one thing to back down when the Chinese government openly threatens your standing in the country. I’m not naive. I get that Apple can’t just light billions on fire and walk away from their supply chains. However, to publicly excuse your actions using the literal Party line from a government widely known for its poor human rights record and suppression of any dissent is absolutely beyond any possible defense. This is the height of hypocrisy.
To be fair, I have been a fan of Tim Cook and his leadership of Apple overall. People complain about too few new products and “lack of innovation,” but if you think of all the possible outcomes for a new CEO taking up the mantle of a massive company on the heels of a legend who passed away, Cook comes out looking really good. He hasn’t just held serve. He has accelerated the company’s growth and, despite what some say, has launched two new products that both lead their respective categories.
That said, I think that his decision to take a publicly traded company into political and social activism was a mistake that he is now paying the price for. It’s one thing to champion privacy, which is an issue that is paramount across the tech industry. It is another to veer the company off into human rights and social causes. When you do that and then suddenly forget those values because they become too costly, then you are by literal definition, guilty of hypocrisy. Tim Cook set himself and the company up for this beating and I have a feeling that hubris prevented him or his team from ever seeing it coming.
I am a fan of Steve Jobs, but I can’t say that I agree with everything he did or look at him with the near-worship that many Apple fans do. The man had his flaws, both personal and professional, and they are all pretty well known and covered at this point. However, I absolutely credit him for one thing- he knew better than to take Apple in a political and social activist direction. He purposely avoided it. He was running a company and didn’t veer off into those minefields. It is one thing to allow or even encourage your employees to be socially and politically conscious and active, but taking an entire company in that direction is a mistake if you aren’t willing to hold to your stated principles when they require sacrifice and pain.
Unfortunately for Tim Cook, this bill has come due. The litmus test is very simple: Can you afford to hold to the social and political stances that you take, no matter what the cost? For pretty much any Western company doing business in China right now, that answer has to be no unless you are willing to risk being booted out or just walking away on your own. In Apple’s case, that answer is definitely a no and the next time Tim Cook takes the stage and says anything about Apple’s commitment to human rights and their customers, the first thing most tech writers will ask is, “what about the ones in China?” I know I will. That’s what happens when you paint your company into a corner, can’t back up your words, and even worse, then try to defend your actions that don’t line up.
I usually avoid this phrase, but there is no way around it this time. What would Steve have done? I can guarantee you it wouldn’t have been this.