Say the words China and Internet in the same breath and someone will undoubtedly think censorship. It gets attention from websites ranging from broadcast news to international human rights organizations and even online encyclopedias. The censorship, which the government positively refers to as the “Golden Shield Project,” to protect its citizens from online dangers, is more commonly referred to as the “Great Firewall of China.”
Despite the catchy nickname, the issue of censorship is a very serious concern among bloggers and other frequent users of the Internet. With some creativity, netizens have learned that it is possible to bypass the government’s firewall, as evidenced from an interview with writer James Fallows in Atlantic Monthly, but the government’s plans to install web filtering software on computers sold in China has caused a grassroots online uproar.
The Green Dam Youth Escort software has been given a rousing thumbs down by more than 32,000 people who voluntarily answered an online survey. In addition, IT software engineers gave the software a test run and quickly learned that it was antiquated and had too many vulnerabilities, which could make computers more vulnerable.
When the government finally decided to delay the July 1 rollout of the software, around 200 people celebrated in the streets of Beijing wearing anti-Green Dam t-shirts. Despite the excitement, everyone realized that the software could still be installed:
” ‘It has not been canceled, just put back, so it’s possible that after a certain amount of time it will be pushed back out,’ said Liu Xiaoyuan, who wants the government to explain why a software ostensibly designed to protect a minority of users — children and teen-agers — must be installed on all computers.”
Despite concerns about the government’s censorship, blogging has given Chinese citizens a newfound freedom to speak out. More than 60 percent of active Internet users in China have started their own blog, according to the Power of the People Social Media Tracker by Universal McCann and interpreted in the graphic above by Gaurav Mishra. This means that Chinese netizens blog more than other BRIC citizens and Chinese netizens read blogs more than than BRIC citizens. Their blog reading outweighs any other social media use, except for watching videos online.
With blogs having such an importance among China’s Internet users, companies in China must pay attention to blog chatter and take it seriously. Recently, Apple computer is facing a public relations crisis in both the mainstream media and the blogosphere because of the suicide of an employee at Foxconn, a major China-based supplier for Apple. According to news reports, Sun Danyong jumped to his death from a high-rise. Blogger Jim Dalrymple reported on CNET that:
“Danyong was responsible for shipping iPhone prototypes to Apple. Danyong reported the missing device to Foxconn after realizing that one of the 16 iPhones he received was no longer in his possession.”
Despite the buzz online about Apple, the company does not have a statement anywhere on its website. Another issue is that China’s citizens are once again connecting Apple with Foxconn, the same supplier that got into hot water with bloggers in 2006 after it sued a journalist and editor at China Business News for reporting supposed poor conditions at a company plant. Foxconn’s answer to the recent blogger backlash related to the suicide was to to suspend a company employee, despite that employee’s assertion that he didn’t do anything wrong and that he, in fact, was now experiencing harassment by bloggers who released his name and address online.
Whether or not the employee or Foxconn were to blame for Danyong’s suicide, the abundance of blog posts point to the need for Foxconn and Apple to make some necessary changes in China and in their crisis communication methods. The news of the suicide has now reached across the ocean to mainstream U.S. news sites, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and to U.S. bloggers.
I suggest that Apple make the following changes:
- Speak Up. Story after story accuses Apple of creating a culture of secrecy with its products, implying that the company’s actions may have contributed to Foxconn’s problems and the suicide. By not answering, Apple is letting readers fill-in-the-blanks. It is time for the company to speak for itself.
- Talk to the Local Media. Apple should not ignore the power of the Chinese media and bloggers. Giving an interview or statement to a U.S. newspaper or blog demonstrates to the Chinese that Apple’s investment in their country is only surface-deep.
- Diversify. Despite the fact that a majority of Apple’s suppliers are based in China, Apple’s executive team is predominantly white men. Suppliers may feel that Apple does not understand them or their unique issues in China. With a company based in California, the suppliers may not feel a connection to Apple or the company’s philosophy. With such a disconnect, why should suppliers and their employees follow the Apple Supplier Code of Conduct?
- Look Around. This is the second major PR crisis for Apple and Foxconn within three years. Apple may need to consider looking elsewhere for a supplier, possibly a company that would draw less attention and controversy. If after two crises Apple does not penalize the supplier for failing to follow the Code of Conduct, a supplier will not change.
- Invest in Frequency. There were some blatant violations of the Apple Supplier Code of Conduct in the company’s most recent report online. It would be worthwhile for the company to invest in more frequent audits of suppliers who have violated the code. One audit of each supplier once a year would be best to ensure that suppliers do not relax in their adherence to the code.
- Act instantly. Apple needs to quit waiting for the blogosphere to bring complaints to attention. It needs to be in frequent contact with suppliers to know when there are potential crises. And when a problem occurs, Apple must act quickly, getting out to the forefront on any problems. A slow response implies that the company does not care or that the problem is not a priority.
- Contact Nike. Brubaker recommends that Apple turn to Nike to learn lessons from Nike’s own problems and successes.
- Get Boots on the Ground. Unlike my suggestion to invest in doing audits more frequently, Brubaker advocates for inspections “NOW.”
- Invite in third parties. With continued problems with suppliers like Foxconn, Brubaker believes that no one will believe Apple’s reporting and should instead turn to a third party for assistance in auditing the suppliers.