Will Tim Cook's gay announcement affect Apple in China?

Updated: 2014-11-03 05:16


Chen Weihua

(China Daily USA)
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Apple CEO Tim Cook is much less known than the company's legendary founder Steve Jobs, but he was in the spotlight in China in the last few days when he wrote a piece in the Bloomberg Businessweek on Oct 30 publicly announcing his homosexuality.

While Cook being a gay is no news, he has never proclaimed publicly. In the article, Cook, who turned 54 on Saturday, explained his struggle, quoting Martin Luther King Jr's words: "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'". He also believes the issue is one of human rights and equality.

Will Tim Cook's gay announcement affect Apple in China?"I often challenged myself with that question, and I've come to realize that my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important. That's what had led me to today," he wrote.

The most quoted line from his article is: "I'm proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me."

Cook's announcement came at a time when a wave of US states has legalized same-sex marriage lately. In October alone, it became legal in North Carolina, Nevada, West Virginia, Colorado, Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. This has brought the total US states where same-sex marriage is legal to 32, plus the District of Columbia.

But Cook's announcement still made headlines in the US in the days leading up to the midterm elections this week and amid the fight against Ebola and the Islamic State. In China, it has drawn heated comments from both celebrities and ordinary netizens.

While the overall attitude towards gays and lesbians has become more tolerant in Chinese society, as exemplified by the Shanghai Pride Week in June and its Halloween party last week, homosexuality is much more controversial among 1.3 billion Chinese than among Americans.

Li Yinhe, the noted sociologist and sexologist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has long called for the legalization of same-sex marriage in China, but met with cold shoulders from both lawmakers and government officials. She told Phoenix TV that the strong traditional family concept of giving birth to offspring to carry on the family line is still dominant in Chinese society and prevents people — especially homosexual celebrities — from coming out.

Ma Weidu, a well-known collector, also voiced his support, explaining in his popular blog why Cook's public acknowledgement was significant.

"Considering Cook's status, he didn't have to announce this because it might have caused harm to himself and Apple, so this was a significant announcement," Ma wrote.

"With his influence, this will help drive the public discourse about homosexuality. And this is what is most lacking in Chinese society today," he continued.

However, responses on Ma's blog article were mixed. Overall, there were more supporters than opponents.

One person by the name "Xiao Fengyun" praised Cook by saying "this really requires courage". Another netizen called "You Huo" said gays and lesbians just extend their love to the same sex, and there is nothing wrong with loving someone.

But one post by Xuxing Chuanzhang, (or Bloody Captain), said in his/her eyes, homosexuality is a psychological disease.

One person tried to link Cook's announcement with Apple products. "From now on, anyone who buys an Apple cell phone just shows he/she is homosexual and at least has a problem with their sexual orientation," wrote Huang He.

While homosexuality is still highly controversial in China, Chinese scholars have traced its origin in the nation's 5,000-year history, citing the literature as early as the Xia Dynasty about 2070-1600 BC. Homosexuality was also recorded in the imperial courts throughout their long history.

A Pew Center survey released last year showed that 21 percent of Chinese said society should accept homosexuality while 57 percent said no. In contrast, 60 percent of Americans said yes and 33 percent said no.

In Asia, the Philippines, Japan and South Korea have a higher support rate for homosexuality than China, while Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan have a lower support rate.

It is estimated that Chinese with homosexual orientation number around 40 million. Discrimination at the work place, family and society is still a huge issue facing Chinese gays and lesbians.

Just a week before his Businessweek article, Cook announced Apple would open 25 more stores in China in the next two years to cash in on the fast-growing market. While some news reports have tried to find out whether his latest announcement will have a negative impact for the company on the Chinese market, observers believe it will be the quality of the products that decides.

But Cook's announcement has given many Chinese a new understanding of Apple's culture, and the character of its boss, whose last name is not Jobs.

Contact the writer at chenweihua@chinadailyusa.com.