Intel has apologized for a ban on the use of components sourced from Xinjiang in response to attacks by Chinese nationalist media over the policy, making it the latest multinational to become embroiled in China’s battle with the US over human rights issues.
The episode quickly became one of the hottest topics online in China with netizens on Twitter-like Weibo urging the government to hit Intel with fines and other penalties.
The controversy erupted after Intel sent a year-end letter to suppliers stating that components made in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang should not be used in its chips. The report caught the attention of the nationalist media outlet Guancha.
In a Chinese social media post, Intel said it wanted to “clarify” that the ban was only intended to comply with US law and not its “own intention or position”.
“We apologize for the problems caused by our respected Chinese customers, partners and the public,” Intel added.
The statement was trending on Weibo and had been viewed 190 million times on Thursday afternoon.
As tensions mount between the west and China, multinationals are finding it increasingly difficult to shun politics, with the “re-education” of a million Uyghur Muslims in Beijing’s western Xinjiang region being a particular focal point.
State media have fueled nationalist opposition to brands like Nike and H&M that have expressed concerns about Xinjiang or pledged to eliminate the region’s use of forced labor from their supply chains.
Intel told the Financial Times that its Chinese statement was intended to “resolve concerns expressed by our stakeholders there about how we have communicated certain regulatory requirements and policies to our global supplier network.” It added that it would continue to comply with US laws.
“This company has to follow US laws, but still wants to make money in China. We can’t replace them at the moment, but we can fine them,” said a Weibo commentator. “Let’s fine them billions at once and use the money for R&D.”
Intel last year earned a quarter of its revenue from customers in China and has more than 10,000 employees in the country. It recently moved to downsize its Chinese operations by selling a memory chip factory to a South Korean chipmaker.
China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times accused Intel of “biting the hand that feeds it”. “What we need to do is make it more and more expensive for companies to insult China,” it said in an editorial.
Chinese celebrities have also been forced to quickly cut ties with the abusive companies to avoid trouble from fans and the Communist Party’s propaganda ministry.
On Wednesday, the studio of Wang Junkai, lead singer of one of China’s biggest boy bands, announced that it would cut all ties with the American chipmaker, adding that it had repeatedly urged the company to publicly express “the right attitude” and that “it is national interest takes precedence over everything else.”
Wang was a brand ambassador for Intel before the dispute.
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