Apple caved in to Beijing’s edict and permanently removed a controversial app from its App Store on Thursday, days after Chinese state media, already in the hunt for Western businesses aiding and abetting Hong Kong protesters, pounced on HKmap.live as it helped demonstrators evade arrest.
Before that, party mouthpiece the People’s Daily and its sister publication the Global Times had been leading a media charge against the transportation and positioning app since last week, which was launched by a team of anonymous developers to help protesters in Hong Kong track police deployments and their anti-riot assets.
The app helped people track things like police vans and even water cannons – real-time on a map – for protesters playing cat-and-mouse games with police through the streets of the former British territory.
Chinese papers also questioned Apple’s rationale after the tech behemoth reversed its earlier decision to block HKmap.live, and the app instantly surged to the top of the most downloaded chart in the Hong Kong App Store after its “resurrection.”
Op-eds that appeared in Chinese papers questioned if Apple intended to be an accomplice to rioters or whether the company wanted to be dragged into the lingering unrest in Hong Kong. The People’s Daily noted on its Weibo account that people had reasons to assume that Apple was mixing business with politics, and even illegal acts.
Thursday’s move to pull the app again, amid Beijing’s ire, was because the app “may allow offenders to abscond and escape law enforcement,” noted the iPhone maker, that uses sprawling factories in China to churn out nearly all of its products. Apple also channeled US$9.6 billion in sales from the Greater China Region between April and June.
It is believed that Apple’s iTunes Store, a marketplace for music, films and other paid content, could be next in Beijing’s crosshairs with a purge of pro-Hong Kong songs, ringtones and clips looming.
There have been calls on the mainland to censor Glory to Hong Kong on iTunes Store and Apple Music, a Cantonese song that has become a rallying cry and protest anthem, but Chinese people have gone online to say the song encourages radicals to stir up more mayhem.
It was also reported that Apple had quietly made services and content in its ecosystems more China-compliant. For instance, Bloomberg reported that the consumer electronics giant had opted to remove the Taiwanese national flag emoji from some iPhones, through a recent iOS update rolled out to users across mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.
The backdrop is that Apple risks being further singled out as Beijing seeks to make an example as a warning to Western companies that they must not have it both ways – making money on the mainland while using words or deeds to question China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity as well as the situation in Hong Kong.
The California-based company is the latest addition to a long list of entities caught between upholding universal values and toeing Beijing’s line, a list that also includes the National Basketball Association, Cathay Pacific, Tiffany, Dolce & Gabbana and more.
Apple has also suffered collateral damage from the drawn-out chaos in Hong Kong in an otherwise brisk season when its latest gadgets including the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro hit the market.
Its six stores in Hong Kong’s most expensive shopping precincts like Central, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui have had to pull down their shutters as early as 6pm each evening in recent weeks amid the city’s anarchy-like turmoil to ensure the safety of staff and customers, though Apple has never been the target of the anti-government movement.
There have also been rumors that Apple, which uses Hong Kong as its Asian headquarters, had put on ice a plan to renovate its existing stores and open another one in the city.