Intel is learning first-hand about the challenges of pleasing both its home country and China. The New York Timesreports Intel has apologized on Chinese social networks after it sent local suppliers a letter saying it wouldn’t use labor and products from the province of Xinjiang. The company said it was honoring US sanctions against the province, not outlining a political viewpoint like social media users, celebrities and nationalist press had suggested.
The US applied sanctions following widespread claims the Chinese government was suppressing Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslim population. Many have accused China of human rights violations that include forced labor, internment camps and constant surveillance. China has long denied the allegations. Intel may have played a role in those violations, as its chips were used in both a spying-oriented supercomputing center and in surveillance systems police obtained despite a blocklist preventing access to US tech. Intel said it wasn’t aware China was misusing its hardware.
The uproar underscores the juggling act Intel, Apple and other American tech firms maintain when operating in China. They have to respect US sanctions (as Intel will continue to do here) and frequently want to be seen embracing American notions of civil and human rights, but they also risk losing a major source of revenue if they antagonize a Chinese government eager to silence criticism. Companies have removed features, transferred data storage and otherwise made exceptions to preserve their business in China. Intel won’t necessarily be pushed to make a decision after the letter, but it clearly doesn’t have much leeway in situations like this.