The White House, weighing in for the first time on concerns about a Chinese backlash against Apple, said it is monitoring reports of a growing government ban of iPhones and believes the move is a reprisal against the US.
“It seems to be of a piece of the kinds of aggressive and inappropriate retaliation to US companies that we’ve seen from the PRC in the past,” said John Kirby, the council’s spokesman, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
Bloomberg News reported this month that China plans to expand a ban on the use of iPhones to a plethora of state-backed companies and agencies, a sign of growing challenges for Apple in the country. Several Chinese agencies have begun instructing staff not to bring their iPhones to work.
But the situation grew more muddled Wednesday, when Beijing pushed back on reports about iPhone restrictions while also raising concerns about security problems with the device.
“China has not issued laws and regulations to ban the purchase of Apple or foreign brands’ phones,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular press briefing in Beijing on Wednesday. It marked the government’s first comments on the issue but didn’t seem to refer directly to workplace bans of the device.
Mao also said that the government attaches “great importance” to security and that all companies operating in China need to abide by its laws and regulations. “We noticed that there have been many media reports about security incidents concerning Apple phones,” she said.
The remarks left US investors unsure about Apple’s status in China — which is both the company’s production base and its biggest international market — just as a new iPhone is launching. The shares slipped as much as 1.3% in New York on Wednesday before recovering some of the losses.
The China-Apple tensions are part of a broader standoff between the world’s two largest economies. The US has limited exports of advanced chip-making equipment to China, citing fears that such technology will help equip the Asian nation’s military. China has imposed its own restrictions on exports and limited US chipmaker Micron Technology’s ability to sell products.
Mao’s comments about security incidents were slightly different in the official English translation of the news briefing. That translation, delivered simultaneously onsite by the ministry, omitted the reference to media “reports”. Foreign affairs ministry briefings are typically rigorously controlled, and spokespeople’s responses are usually scripted ahead of time with consistent translations.
The Chinese press conference came just hours after Apple unveiled the latest model of its marquee device, the iPhone 15. The company introduced four new models, keeping pace with the past few generations: the iPhone 15, 15 Plus, 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max. Pre-orders of the device begin on Friday.
Apple also has faced a number of security issues in recent months. An iPhone belonging to a staffer at a Washington-based civil society organisation was hacked remotely with spyware created by Israel’s NSO group. Apple confirmed the attack and issued a patch last week to address the issue.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, accused an unidentified US intelligence agency in June of hacking several thousand iPhones. The attacks were linked to Sim cards registered with Russia-based diplomats, including some from China, it said.
Apple didn’t comment at the time on whether any Russian phones were breached, but a spokesman said the company didn’t help any government in the alleged attack, as the FSB implied. — Mark Gurman and Airielle Lowe, with Philip Glamann, Lulu Shen and Sarah Zheng, (c) 2023 Bloomberg LP