China Denies iPhone Ban, but the Devil Is in the Details

The Chinese government has clarified media reports that iPhone sales would be banned from use in government administration services. At a press conference this Wednesday, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Mao Ning, explained that as it stands, “China did not issue any law, regulation or policy document that bans the purchase and use of cellphones of foreign brands, such as iPhone.” 

But then, the original question wasn’t around a hard ban on Apple products; the original report (courtesy of Wall Street Journal) referred to a soft ban on any Apple technology used at the government level. As that publication wrote, “China ordered officials at central government agencies not to use Apple’s iPhones and other foreign-branded devices for work or bring them into the office.” The report added that the orders were made by “superiors.”

A decision like this doesn’t quite have the same potency as an outright sale and usage ban (in line with the U.S. and Portugal’s ban of Huawei 5G equipment from existing and future infrastructure), but they work the same way.

Yet the devil is usually in the details (especially regarding policy decisions and official communications). Specifically, Mao Ning added that while no laws had been passed banning iPhone sales, the country’s concerns with security and information security (both real-world and cyber) are paramount to the government’s decision. The spokesperson then added, “However, recently, we did notice media reports about security issues related to iPhone.” She added, “The Chinese government attaches great importance to cyber and information security and treats Chinese and foreign companies as equals. We hope all cellphone companies operating in China will strictly abide by China’s laws and regulations.”

Countries can weaponize policy decisions in the global market – look at the constant back and forth between the U.S. and China. That said, it is a common occurrence that smartphones are barred from accessing specific locations or central government installations worldwide – but these rarely refer to a particular brand and are centered around smartphones’ capabilities rather than doubts about a specific software or hardware implementation.

At this point, it remains to be seen what exactly comes out of this news. Countries and institutions can impact technological adoption in multiple ways without crossing any existing red tape. As one of Apple’s most significant markets, China should be a red flag. China’s economy is one of the world’s healthiest regarding the import/export balance sheet. 

However, the U.S. (and Apple) would have trouble offloading their tech if (or maybe when) the Chinese market rejects some of its most significant efforts – whether through law or culture. It also pays to remember that the spokesperson’s remarks around potential cybersecurity concerns open the window to a more hardline approach to Apple products within the government.