Mar 29, 2012Business
Apple CEO, Tim Cook, visits China: Mending fences or the Great Wall?

Apple CEO Tim Cook visits the iPhone production line at the newly built Foxconn Zhengzhou Technology Park

The Great Wall of China, The Forbidden City and the Yu Yuan Gardens were not exactly the tourist attractions on Apple chief executive, Tim Cook’s, mind during his vacation in China this past week. Visiting Foxconn Technology, Vice Premier Li Keqiang and Mayor Guo Kinglong, however, were ranked high in his itinerary. It was Cook’s first time as chief executive making an appearance at the manufacturing plant that manufactures 50 percent of the world’s electronics, including Apple, Microsoft and Samsung products. It was also his first time meeting with the potential next prime minister and the mayor of Beijing. Now, although no statements have been released on either end about why Cook made visitations and met with the individuals he did, public speculation abounds.

The two most probable reasons behind Cook’s destinations in China have to do with the two most important issues hovering around Apple’s Cupertino headquarters: the inhumane working conditions in Chinese manufacturing plants, particularly Foxconn Technology, and the alleged intellectual property infringement of the ‘iPad’ name from Chinese company, Proview Electronics.

In 2010, a series of employee suicides attracted a lot of attention towards Foxconn Technology, which had apparently created a very unhappy and unhealthy work environment. Apple and its late Steve Jobs were immediately attacked and petitions demanding an “ethical iPhone” arose. A Foxconn female employee told CNN, “They use women as men and they use men as animals.” In response to these horrific protests, in January, Apple became the first technology company to join the Fair Labor Association, which regularly conducts unannounced inspections. Prior to that, Apple had also increased the amount of their personal audits throughout the year.

In addition, Foxconn chairman, Terry Gou, jumped on board and raised the base pay for juniors by up to 25 percent, which exceeds the government’s mandate. Nonetheless, Apple consumers and rights activists are still concerned as suicide threats have not completely stopped and room for improvements is vast. Foxconn has actually mantled up nets around the building to prevent suicides. Early this year, an anonymous ex-Apple employee confessed to the Times: “We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on. Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook walks with employees as he arrives at the headquarters of China Telecom in BeijingTherefore, it is very plausible that Cook visited Foxconn to not only check on working conditions, but also to prove that the Apple family is working towards progress first hand. In an email to all Apple employees, Cook wrote, “We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us.” Unfortunately, we have no way to gauge Cook’s statements on a sincerity scale. Was his visit just a really smart and pretentious publicity stunt? Is Apple trying to patch up its rotten worm holes or is it trying to bear completely new fruit?

Maybe Apple’s trying to mend all relations with China to get out of the messy and expensive lawsuit with Proview Electronics, which has sued them for stealing the ‘iPad’ name they’ve had the rights to since 2001. Meeting with Vice Premier Li Keqiang and Mayor Guo Kinglong and discussing intellectual property with them must have been part of Cook’s plan to tame the Proview giants that are out to get millions; but as far as Proview is concerned they’re not backing down no matter what, even if it takes five to ten years. Moreover, Apple has still not released its iPad 3 in China and may have to wait up to another three months until the courts settle the case. A “political public relations campaign” is what Proview is accusing Cook of doing as a means to persuade the Shenzen courts to let Apple keep the ‘iPad’ trademark in China.

After all, Apple has only a 7.5 percent market share in China, while Samsung, for example, has 24.3 percent. Whatever Cook’s announced reasons are for being in China -- such as wanting to conduct business in a law abiding manner -- there are too many facts and history that hint at underlying motives.

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