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Customers gather for the opening of an Apple Store in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, on Jan. 24.Reuters

Late last year, I bought an iPhone in Beijing, joining the sea of buyers in China whose lust for the bigger new smartphones sparked lengthy queues and, for Apple, the most profitable quarter of all time. More than 20 per cent of company revenues came from greater China, where local analysts say Apple has been outselling every other phone maker – no small achievement considering it had, only months before, occupied distant sixth place.

The roaring sales are a testament to Apple's pied piper skills, with few other companies capable of cultivating such a lucrative consumer following.

But they are also proof of Apple's success in currying favour with the powerful bureaucracies that control what can be sold in China, bureaucracies that wield the buying power of Chinese consumers to bend corporations to do their bidding.

An iPhone in China, I soon discovered, is not like an iPhone elsewhere. It looks the same. It shares the same eye-popping price tag. It even, depending on which you buy, shares the same model number.

But there are things you can't do on a Chinese iPhone. You can't use FaceTime audio, the voice call technology that is encrypted, and therefore more difficult to tap. On my previous iPhone, bought in Canada, I've used it to discuss sensitive topics in hopes of protecting sources from the country's pervasive monitoring. On my new iPhone, it doesn't exist.

Apple has also disabled a direct connection to YouTube. On an iPhone bought anywhere else, it's a quick tap from a video to upload to YouTube. Not on a Chinese iPhone. After weeks of confused discussion with Apple's technical support, I was told: "Due to some restrictions in China, the iPhone has limits to how it can upload videos to YouTube."

Apple's advice: sell it and buy another one.

It would be easy to call these restrictions meaningless. YouTube is censored in China, meaning it's hard to reach in any case. And for those with access to foreign iTunes stores, the YouTube app is still available. But uploads via the app are many times slower and not as reliable. That's a problem, since YouTube tends to be the best way to share videos of, for example, anti-government protests.

More broadly, the iPhone restrictions are another example of the ways Western technology companies are aligning with a Chinese government that tortures critics and has developed one of the most extensive spying and censorship regimes on earth. Foreign firms often say they are merely following local laws. But that's a tough argument to make in China.

"No local law or court order were given to Apple. In fact, the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of speech," said Percy Alpha, the public pseudonym for one of the dissident founders of, which tracks China's blocking of Internet traffic. "Apple and LinkedIn, etc., are taking arbitrary censorship orders without any legal procedure."

LinkedIn is among the only Western social networking sites freely available in China, an access it bought through a commitment to censoring anything China finds objectionable – which has included posts made from outside the country. Other companies have chosen differently, and as a result have missed out on the China bonanza. Google has not given in to Chinese dictates, and its search, maps and e-mail services are now largely blocked in the country. Even its Android smartphone operating system ships on Chinese smartphones bereft of Google apps, and the advertising dollars they generate for Google.

Apple has argued that it takes privacy seriously, saying it won't give governments backdoors to its products – or to the servers it has in a new data centre in China.

But it, too, deletes content in China. It has scrubbed from its Chinese App Store programs that can be used to circumvent Internet blocks or provide access to Tibetan books.

"They comply with China's censorship. You never really hear that talked about. I don't think they're worse than everyone else, and I'm grateful for the content that is available," said Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder of Danwei, a firm that researches China media and markets. "But they also do the devil's work there."