Intel has apologized for a ban on using components from Xinjiang in response to attacks from Chinese nationalist media over the policy, becoming the latest multinational to become embroiled in China’s battle with the US over human rights issues.
The episode quickly became one of the most talked-about topics online in China with netizens on Twitter-like Weibo calling for the government to hit Intel with fines and other punishments.
The controversy erupted after Intel sent a year-end letter to suppliers noting that components made in the north-western Chinese region of Xinjiang should not be used in its chips. The message attracted the attention of nationalist media outlet Guancha.
In a Chinese language social media post, Intel said it wanted to “clarify” that the ban was only for compliance with US law and not its “own intention or position.”
“We apologize for the trouble caused to our respected Chinese customers, partners and the public,” Intel added.
The statement was trending on Weibo and had been viewed 190m times by Thursday afternoon.
As tensions mount between the west and China, multinationals are finding it more difficult to avoid politics, with Beijing’s “reeducation” of a million Uyghur Muslims in its western Xinjiang region a particular flashpoint.
State media have whipped up nationalist opposition to brands such as Nike and H&M that voiced concerns about Xinjiang or vowed to eliminate the use of forced labor from the region from their supply chains.
Intel told the Financial Times that its Chinese statement intended to “address concerns raised by our stakeholders there regarding how we communicated certain legal requirements and policies with our global supplier network.” It added it would continue to remain compliant with US laws.
“This company must abide by American laws but still wants to make money in China, we can’t replace them at the moment but we can fine them,” said one Weibo commentator. “Let’s fine them billions at a time and use the money for R&D.”
Intel earned one-quarter of its revenue from customers in China last year and has more than 10,000 employees in the country. It has recently moved to shrink 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 to make it increasingly expensive for companies to offend China,” it said in an editorial.
Chinese celebrities have also been forced to quickly cut ties with the companies that cause offense 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 US chipmaker, adding that it had repeatedly urged the company to publicly express a “correct stance” and that “national interest trumps all.”
Wang had been a brand ambassador for Intel before the dispute.