This article appears in the Witness section of the Autumn 2017 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

China is not known for its respect for freedom of speech. The country has one of the most comprehensive systems of internet censorship in the world – often dubbed the Great Firewall. Chinese citizens seeking to circumvent the country’s internet filters rely on the use of a virtual private network, or VPN. This is a piece of software that allows users to browse the internet as if they were in a different country, thus avoiding domestic restrictions.

In the latest bid to clamp down on unfettered internet use, the Chinese government has secured the support of the American technology giant Apple. The firm has removed over 60 VPNs from its app store in China. One of these companies, ExpressVPN, posted a letter it received from Apple saying the app had been taken down “because it includes content that it is illegal in China”.

Apple’s actions have sparked controversy in both the US and the UK, showing as it does complicity in censorship. Although Apple has removed apps before after requests from the Chinese government – notably, that of the New York Times newspaper earlier this year – this is the first time that China has managed to use its influence with a large tech company to hit back against an array of different software developers.

The incident is a reminder of how beholden big technology companies are to the Chinese government, given the growing importance of the lucrative Chinese market. Several large technology companies have been criticised for the decisions they have made in China. The business networking site LinkedIn, one of the few Western social networks not to be blocked, agreed to censor posts on politically sensitive subjects such as Tiananmen Square. Microsoft has also agreed to censor certain words and topics. Google took its search engines offline in China in 2010 after continued criticism and tensions over censorship. (The decision did not cause the exodus of tech companies that some had predicted). Despite its very public departure, Google kept some aspects of its business quietly running in China, including its web-tracking Analytics service.

The reason for all this is obvious: the huge financial incentive. After the US, China is Apple’s largest market, and sales in China account for a quarter of its global revenue. That leaves it even more vulnerable than most international companies to a Chinese campaign to wean the populace off foreign technology in favour of domestic brands – or to tighten control over those foreign tech companies that continue to operate there.

Tech companies, for all their power to shape the world around us, have shown little leadership in resisting Chinese censorship – and as economic trajectories suggest this market will only become more important, there is little reason to believe this will change.