Intel apologizes for letter about forced labor in Xinjiang

Intel is learning firsthand about the challenges of satisfying both its home country and China. The New York Times reports that Intel has apologized on Chinese social networks after it sent a letter to local suppliers saying it would not use workers and products from Xinjiang province. The company said it respected US sanctions against the province and did not outline a political stance as social media users, celebrities and nationalist press had suggested.

The US applied sanctions after widespread claims that the Chinese government suppressed Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslim population. Many have accused China of human rights abuses, including forced labour, internment camps and constant surveillance. China has long denied the allegations. Intel may have played a role in those violations, as the chips were used in both an espionage-focused supercomputing center and surveillance systems obtained by the police despite a block list that prevented access to US technology. Intel said it was unaware that China was misusing its hardware.

The uproar underscores the juggling act that Intel, Apple and other US tech companies maintain when operating in China. They must respect US sanctions (as Intel will continue to do here) and often want to be seen embracing US notions of civil and human rights, but they also risk losing an important source of revenue if they thwart a Chinese government that is eager to silences criticism. Companies have removed features, transferred data storage and otherwise made exceptions to keep their business in China. Intel won’t necessarily be forced to make a decision after the letter, but it clearly doesn’t have much leeway in situations like this.

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