This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Chinese authorities have reportedly banned the use of foreign-made electronics including Apple’s iPhone for government business, while insisting that ordinary citizens install a government anti-fraud app on their phones amid complaints that it tracks users’ activities.
Apple shares tumbled nearly 4% on Thursday, prompting a selloff in U.S. equities after The Wall Street Journal and Reuters reported on widened curbs on iPhone use by Chinese government staff.
The move comes amid ongoing tension with the United States and party leader Xi Jinping’s moves towards “decoupling” from the global economy.
According to Reuters, ruling Communist Party officials told employees at some central government agencies in recent weeks to stop using their Apple cell phones at work.
Bloomberg reported on Thursday that the ban had been extended from officials working in central government ministries to government agencies and state-owned enterprises, while some organizations have started warning employees not to bring iPhones to work.
Form of retaliation?
Netherlands-based dissident Lin Shengliang said this isn’t the first time that the Chinese government has tried to restrict the use of foreign electronic devices.
“Leaders in Shenzhen had already issued an internal regulation last year, although it wasn’t made public,” Lin told Radio Free Asia. “I know people who say foreign mobile phones and Tesla cars have also been banned from their workplaces, while some have to use Huawei computers and a closed intranet at the office.”
Wang Juntao, U.S.-based chairman of the banned China Democracy Party, said the ban could be a form of retaliation against American sanctions targeting TikTok and Huawei.
“[If so], the government is still only setting restrictions on the use [of foreign electronics],” Wang said. “It hasn’t yet imposed an import ban on iPhones.”
“This is likely coming from a national security perspective.”
U.S. officials have imposed various sanctions on Huawei since 2019, when it said the company had been involved in activities “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”
Forced to install
Meanwhile, Beijing is rolling out an “anti-fraud” app nationwide, imposing it on citizens amid complaints the app scoops up private information from users’ phones about their activities.
Students in schools are required to install the National Anti-Fraud Center app, which users said is impossible to uninstall.
Video footage of police at Daqing railway station in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang showed officers checking the cell phones of passengers one by one, taking their ID card details, and forcing them to install the “anti-fraud” app, which ostensibly filters out scam phone calls.
Another social media video showed traffic police stopping a man entering a mountainous area on a motorbike, and checking his phone for the app, saying he couldn’t leave until he’d installed it.
A resident of the eastern province of Jiangxi who gave only the surname Meng for fear of reprisals said he has refused to install the app so far.
“It actually monitors people, so we daren’t install it,” Meng said. “They send SMS reminders to install it to our phones every day.”
“This thing carries out long-term monitoring and GPS tracking,” he said. “They are deceiving people by saying it’s an anti-fraud app.”
Developed by Criminal Investigation Bureau
According to the app’s listing on the Tencent app store, it was developed by the Criminal Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security.
“It is provided to all users,” the description reads, adding that there is also a version available for desktop computers.
The app was analyzed in September 2022 by the U.S.-government fund Open Technology Fund, a U.S. nonprofit that supports global internet freedom technologies and, like Radio Free Asia, is part of the United States Agency for Global Media, an independent agency of the U.S. government that broadcasts news and information in 63 languages.
According to the report, it requests access to the user’s camera, location services, microphone and photo library, and contains voice recognition software.
It said the app sends user data “to private backend servers” that “may also be used for malicious purposes without the user being notified.”
A resident of the northeastern port city of Dalian who gave only the surname Chen for fear of reprisals said she had held out for a while, but had been forced to install it in the end.
“I downloaded it – they told me that the police anti-fraud app will block calls from fraudsters,” she said. “They were promoting in my [residential] community, telling us they wanted to download [it].”
“It was a double-edged sword,” Chen said, adding that she had deleted the app.