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Chinese Warnings on iPhones Tap Deep Strain of Security Concerns


China has discouraged the use of foreign-made electronic devices by government officials for a decade. It has told agencies and state-owned companies to replace American computer servers and other devices with domestic ones. And officials frequently show off to Americans their phones made by Huawei, China’s cellphone giant.

Now, some employees of government agencies said they have received directives not to use Apple iPhones for work. Internet users in China also have been circulating accounts and screenshots said to contain notices to government employees and state-owned businesses ordering or urging them to adopt domestic brands of cellphones and computers for their work.

Chinese authorities have issued no public pronouncements about broader restrictions on iPhones. The suggestion that Apple could lose ground in the valuable Chinese market has pushed the company’s stock lower, and Apple’s most popular product has gotten snared in the persistent China-U.S. tensions over technology.

China’s censors, usually assiduous about controlling the flow of information on the internet, appear to have done little or nothing to stop the claims of restrictions, first reported in The Wall Street Journal.

Some local and provincial employees, who make up the bulk of government employees in China, have denied being told of any ban. They have been targeted in previous efforts to discourage the use of Apple devices, notably after Edward J. Snowden, an American government contractor, released information in 2013 revealing American surveillance around the world.

The United States and China both have much to lose in a geopolitical fight over consumer electronics.

The United States bans federal agencies from buying telecommunications equipment from Huawei and other Chinese manufacturers.

Mr. Cabestan said that the warnings in China appeared to be a security measure aimed at state employees, and not a broader effort to discourage sales in China of Apple devices.

Still, few American companies have more to lose than Apple from rising tensions between the world’s superpowers. China is the world’s largest smartphone market and the source of about a fifth of Apple’s revenue. Apple doesn’t break out how many iPhones it sells in China.

More broadly, Apple became the most valuable technology company by pioneering a business model built on China’s manufacturing expertise. The country’s giant work force inexpensively assembles the vast majority of iPhones sold around the world.

Some people who work in China’s central government said employees have been told to stop using iPhones. Others described a vaguer demand for officials to stop using foreign-brand phones and to use Chinese ones.

One message that circulated on WeChat, a ubiquitous Chinese social media service, cited a decision from a departmental leader that staff members were to be barred from using foreign-brand smartphones, laptops and other digital devices starting Sept. 7. The message said staff members were also prohibited from using these foreign-brand products for work in their own homes. Another message on WeChat said that staff members would be required to stop using iPhones by Oct. 1.

Discussion has appeared online for years about whether Chinese officials are barred from using iPhones, along with occasional denials of blanket bans. A Shanghai newspaper reported in 2014 that officials in that city were under pressure to abandon iPhones over security worries.

A researcher in a government-run research institute in Beijing, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the drive to discourage the use of iPhones appeared to ripple from what Chinese officials and party newspapers have described as a strategy of “substitution for domestic products” in key technologies, which has picked up pace since last year. In a speech to senior officials in February, which was published in July, Xi Jinping, China’s leader, urged increased efforts to achieve self-sufficiency for China in scientific research and advanced technologies.

“We must go on the offensive for the national production of scientific and technological instruments and equipment, operating systems and basic software,” Mr. Xi said.

In recent weeks, China’s Minister of State Security has publicized cases that it said involved Chinese officials and other people in sensitive roles being recruited by U.S. intelligence agents. Earlier this year, Chinese government secrecy authorities warned about careless use of phones that could expose officials to hacking or leaking sensitive information.

Amy Chang Chien, Claire Fu and Li Yuan contributed reporting.


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