Apple’s CEO goes to China

"Captain" Cook's trip to China fuels buzz and rumors

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

The world played ‘Where’s Tim?’ when Apple CEO Tim Cook headed to China this week.  “Look, there’s Tim at the Apple store!” “Now Tim’s meeting with the mayor of Beijing!” “Ooh, there’s Tim at a Foxconn plant.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook visits the iPhone production line at the new Foxconn Zhengzhou Technology Park in Henan, China. (Reuters)

It’s obviously a big deal when the head of the world’s most valuable company visits its most populous nation, one with the second biggest economy on earth. Steve Jobs never did make it to China, though Cook did  when he was COO during the Jobs years.

A great deal of speculation went into just why Cook had decided to visit now. In the Shanghai Daily, Zhu Shenshen wrote an extensive piece on Apple’s various issues in China:

  • The lawsuit China’s ProView company has filed over Chinese rights to the iPad name.
  • China wants to see more manufacturing move from the coasts to its underdeveloped central and Western regions, such as Henan, home to the factory Cook visited.
  • Faster certification approvals for the Chinese market, which routinely has to wait wait two or three months to get Apple’s products.

Shenshen also speculated that some talks might have focused on things like when China might get iTunes, whether Apple will locate research centers in China, and whether it might build more data centers there.

For Shenshen, it’s the wait for products that weighs most heavily:

personally speaking, it’s not a bad thing to have a “business first” Apple CEO. With the growth of the China market, the region no doubt will play a more prominent role in launches of the next-generation iPad, iPhone or Macs. We probably needn’t wait for one or two months to get the new gadgets in our hands after overseas debuts.

Others speculated that Cook was trying to get the country’s biggest cell phone carrier, China Mobile, to carry the iPhone, or that he was gearing up for the production of the iPhone 5.

Reading the tea leaves

A couple of these definitely came up during Cook’s visit. Xinhua reported that Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang, seen as a successor to current premier Wen Jiabao, called on Apple and other multinationals to help develop China’s interior. In exchange, China said it will work harder on intellectual property protections.

Tea leaf readers made much of Xinhua reporting a seemingly small request from Li: that Apple do a better job of “caring for workers.”

We at LatitudeNews have covered the ongoing controversy over Apple’s seeming neglect of workers, this week showing how far from alone it is.

That the Chinese government raised the issue might please one American columnist. Andrew Ross in the San Francisco Chronicle noted who Cook didn’t meet with while in China: Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which exposed some of the poor labor practices multinationals were allowing in China.

Apple’s transparency was close to nonexistent when the private nonprofit organization, prompted by complaints from local communities, began looking into reports of workers at Chinese factories suffering ill effects of chemical and other hazardous wastes. Of the 29 multinational companies contacted, Ma said, only Apple refused to respond, citing a policy of nondisclosure about its suppliers.

“We felt quite shocked,” said Ma, especially after hexane poisoning was uncovered at a plant manufacturing Apple touch-screens – poisoning Apple later admitted. The company ranked dead last in responsiveness in the institute’s 2010 report about health, labor and environmental conditions at supplier factories. Apple was no more responsive in a follow-up report, in August 2011, which described the company as “stubbornly evasive.”

Maybe that meeting will happen next time Cook goes to China.