Apple's Billion, GarageBand's New Instruments and Beijing's Big Tech Shift

Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
Apple CEO Tim Cook attends a meeting with Chinese app developers at an Apple store in Beijing on May 16, 2016. 

Apple is celebrating the rich history of Chinese music today, adding traditional Chinese instruments including the pipa and erhu to its recording software GarageBand as well as a full library of loops inspired by Chinese musical styles. The company has also more wholly localized the entire application for Chinese users, "with all sounds, loops and instruments now translated to Simplified Chinese or Traditional Chinese." Also notable is a new feature which allows artists to upload their work directly to Chinese-borne social giants QQ and Yukou.

Which is to say: Apple needs the Chinese government on its side. Not seeing the connection here? Let's back up.

Earlier this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook arrived in Beijing following a month of bad, though not catastrophic, news from the world's most populous nation. First the company's digital film and book sales were shuttered, then it lost a relatively minor but embarrassing trademark case around its 'iPhone' name.

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The book and film sales in particular were seen to be the result of a dramatic pivot in policy led by President Xi Jinping that many speculated would lead to a winnowing presence of American technology companies in the country. These changes were made clear during the World Internet Conference, held in Wuzhen last Dec. 16-18. Chinese officials used the conference "to send a clear message: that the Communist Party will seek to maximize state control over all networks, data, and information," wrote Eurasia Group analyst Samm Sacks at the time. That stance was subtly presaged by new rules announced for streaming services the month before, which put the onus of content policing on those platforms as opposed to the country's Ministry of Culture. The new rules effectively provide Chinese streaming companies a regulatory advantage due to their existing, or more easily cultivated, government relationships.

"Beijing has long griped about threat posed by western -- especially US -- cyber hegemony," Sacks wrote. It couldn't be more clear that they are addressing just that, and with muscle.

So how does a company like Apple, which sold $12.4 billion of product in China during the first quarter of this year, stay on Beijing's good side? "Tech companies of all types will have to invest more resources in political risk identification, anticipation, and mitigation," wrote Mark Y. Rosenberg, adjunct assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, in an article last week for Quartz

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They say money talks -- and "mitigates." The $1 billion that Apple put into Didi, a Chinese rival to Uber, last week was, all things considered, clearly a down payment on a seat at the table.

But that seat remains at a very specific table. What will happen when privacy-loving Apple is asked by Beijing to unlock the iPhone of a political dissident? New rules that dovetail with exactly that question involving "consumer software and mainstream devices and looking at the products’ encryption or data storage," as the New York Times reports today, may eventually provide an answer. Apple may not play ball -- they complied with fewer requests from Chinese authorities than U.S., according to filings cited by Bloomberg in March.

Apple is doing its best to walk a very thin tightrope in one of the world's most promising economies. Which is to say -- they're at least trying to play a new tune.