China accounts for a quarter of Intel’s global revenue. | Credit: Xing Yun / Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Intel has issued an apology to partners and customers in China after it told local suppliers it would not be using labor or goods sourced from the country’s Xinjiang region. The company has deleted the statement that resulted in the original backlash.
International trade with Xinjiang is restricted by numerous governments including the US over Chinese treatment of the region’s minority Muslim Uyghur population. Earlier this month, the US passed a ban on imports from Xinjiang unless companies can prove that goods have been created without the use of forced labor. The US government has described the repression of the minority Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang as a “genocide.”
In its annual letter to suppliers, Intel said it was “required” to follow restrictions on Xinjiang trade imposed by “multiple governments” and would “ensure our supply chain does not use any labor or source goods or services from the Xinjiang region.” (That portion of the letter has now been removed from Intel’s website, but an archived version can be found here.)
This normally-procedural note caused a backlash in China. The letter went viral on Chinese social media, leading Chinese popstar Karry Wang, a former Intel ambassador, to cut ties with the firm (“National interest exceeds everything,” said Wang on social media), while nationalist outlet Global Times accused Intel of “biting the hand that feeds it.”
The Chinese market is responsible for a quarter of Intel’s global revenue, or around $20 billion. The company also employs more than 10,000 people in China. A New York Times investigation in 2020 found that chips made by Intel were being used to power supercomputers deployed by the Chinese government for Uyghur surveillance.
In response to this backlash, Intel apologized on Chinese social media sites on Wednesday. In a letter addressed to the Chinese public and local partners, Intel said it was limiting trade with Xinjiang only as a legal formality and not a political statement. “We apologize for the trouble caused to our respected Chinese customers, partners, and the public,” said the letter. “To clarify, the paragraph about Xinjiang in the letter is only for expressing the original intention of compliance and legality, not for its intention or position.”
Asked to comment on the letter, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that “American companies should never feel the need to apologize for standing up for fundamental human rights or opposing repression.” Psaki did not comment directly on Intel but said: “I can say as a general matter that we believe the private sector and the international community should oppose the PRC’s weaponizing of its markets to stifle support for human rights.”
Intel’s trouble is the latest example of US tech firms being squeezed on both sides by the demands of the US and Chinese governments. There are numerous examples of US companies complying with intrusive Chinese orders in order to retain business in the country. These vary from the significant, like Apple storing user data on servers run by Chinese state-owned firms, to the absurd, like Amazon deleting all reviews under five stars for Chinese president Xi Jinping’s book. Intel’s apology for following US law will not be the last example of these pressures leading to hypocritical behavior.