Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident whose flight to the U.S. in April roiled U.S.-China relations, said iPhone-maker Apple Inc. (AAPL) should take a more outspoken role criticizing China for its one-child policy.
Apple, which hires manufacturers to assemble products such as the iPhone and iPad in China, can help stop forced abortions and other coercive population control measures, Chen said in an interview this week. The blind human-rights activist is betting that Apple’s presence in China and the popularity of its products there will help draw attention to the issue.
“Apple in China should take a very active role,” Chen said. “There’s a huge social responsibility for these international corporations like Apple.”
This is the first time since arriving in the U.S. that the civil rights activist is speaking against his country’s forced birth-control policy, the issue that led to his arrest and jail term in China. Chen received a fellowship to study at New York University after seeking help at the U.S. embassy in Beijing just as high-level talks between the two countries got under way in April.
Chen and other China human-rights advocates are seeking a meeting with Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook to discuss their concerns. They sent a letter to Cook last week asking Apple to adopt measures to end coercive family planning practices in its factories. The proposals included prohibiting access to factories for government family-planning officials and refusing to report women who are pregnant without birth permits. The group also wants other companies, including Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO), to urge the Chinese government to drop its policy.
China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a faxed request for comment. Cai Feng, an official with the National Population and Family Planning Commission’s news department, directed requests for comment to the agency’s international cooperation department. Calls to that department weren’t answered today.
Introduced in the late 1970s and made mandatory in 1980, China’s one-child policy restricts most married couples to having one child in order to control population growth in the country of 1.3 billion.
Migrant women must provide certificates showing their childbearing and birth-control status to the provincial government where they work, according to government regulations. Employers are required to play a role in family planning and accept government supervision, the national commission says on its website.
Apple said in its most recent annual corporate responsibility report that 24 facilities it audited conducted pregnancy tests of female workers and that 56 didn’t have policies and procedures that prohibit discriminatory practices based on pregnancy. Apple said it classified these practices as discrimination, even if permitted by local law, and that the suppliers had stopped the screenings. Apple has said it will stop doing business with suppliers who can’t meet its code of conduct.
Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Apple, declined to comment beyond information provided in the company’s corporate- responsibility report, where it says it considers conducting pregnancy tests discriminatory.
Chen and his group didn’t provide any evidence that Apple has been tied to forced abortions or other coercive birth- control measures. John Earnhardt, a spokesman for Cisco, didn’t respond to a call seeking comment on Chen’s assertions.
Geng Shuang and Gao Yuan, spokesmen for the Chinese embassy in Washington, didn’t respond to two e-mails and a phone call seeking comment. After more than three decades of strict birth control, China’s Communist Party is tolerating debate on the policy as it risks restraining economic growth as the nation ages and the labor force shrinks. However, in his annual report to lawmakers in March, Premier Wen Jiabao said China will continue to keep its birth rate low.
“As a matter of U.S. policy, any coercive measures, including forced abortion, we deplore,” Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, who oversees democracy, human rights and labor issues for the State Department, said during a July 25 briefing on the 17th U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue. Posner said the U.S. would continue to raise the issue when asked about China’s one-child policy by reporters.
Chen’s group said it is working with U.S. lawmakers to craft legislation giving companies a one-time waiver to repatriate cash being held overseas if they chose to move manufacturing from China to the U.S., a tax break they say could be worth about $25 billion for Apple.
Chen and his group said they aren’t trying to single out Apple and instead see the company as a potential leader on this issue. Because of its size and appeal among consumers, Apple has a greater responsibility to act, he said.
“Apple is in a unique position to take a leadership role in standing up against coercive family planning in China,” Chen and the other activists wrote in the letter to Apple’s CEO.
Apple is being targeted first by Chen and fellow activists because it’s the leading company in technology and the world’s largest company by market value, said Andrew Duncan, a film producer and human rights advocate. Duncan is working with Chen, along with Bob Fu, the president of China Aid, and Reggie Littlejohn, who operates Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.
“Give the voiceless a voice -- that’s what we’re asking Apple to do,” said Duncan, a former private-equity executive. “Apple is the leader of corporate America.”
Chen, a self-taught lawyer and prominent opponent of forced abortions under China’s one-child policy, praised Google Inc. (GOOG) for shutting down its China website in 2010 after the operator of the world’s largest search engine said it would no longer filter results to comply with Chinese regulations to self-censor content.
“The bold step taken by Google showed tremendous courage and had impact on China,” Chen said.
Chen’s letter is the latest challenge to Apple’s manufacturing operations in China, which has been a source of criticism, particularly after at least 10 suicides at a Foxconn factory in 2010. China Labor Watch has accused Apple of enabling excessive overtime, poor pay and unsafe working environments.
In response, Apple in January partnered with the Fair Labor Association to conduct independent audits of facilities where its products are made. The Fair Labor Association said last month that Foxconn had cut working hours and improved safety at a faster pace than had been scheduled in its agreement with the group. Cook also visited China this year, where he toured factories and met with government officials.
Apple isn’t alone in using manufacturers such as Foxconn in China to build some of the world’s leading consumer electronics. Samsung Electronics Co. (005930), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Dell Inc. (DELL) and Hewlett- Packard Co. (HPQ) also use a network of suppliers in China to manufacture its devices.
Last month, Samsung was accused by New York-based China Labor Watch of using underage workers at a Chinese assembler. Samsung said it didn’t find underage workers at the facility.
“It is totally unacceptable for these corporations to just concentrate on the financial benefit,” Chen said. “Corporations are made of human beings and we all have a responsibility to take a moral and conscious stand.”
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