Apple is under fire for relenting to pressure from the Chinese government and removing a controversial app that the authorities in Hong Kong claim is being used by protesters to track the movements of the police. The issue for Apple is that this came within a day of Chinese state media threatening the U.S. firm with “consequences” for its “reckless” decision to allow HKMap Live into its App Store.
This situation has been a PR nightmare for Apple. HKMap Live was originally submitted to the App Store on September 21, rejected on September 26, resubmitted on October 2, rejected again the same day. Then it was approved on October 5 and rejected again on October 9, after those threats. Dizzying.
The threats had come in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. “Nobody wants to drag Apple into the lingering unrest in Hong Kong,” it warned, “but people have reason to assume that Apple is mixing business with politics, and even illegal acts.” And then the key phrase: “Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision.”
The same newspaper responded to the backtrack by saying Apple had removed the app “after it sparked fury for protecting rioters or assisting them to ambush police,” in an article entitled “Apple removes app which helped HK rioters elude police.”
The app crowdsourced data from Hong Kong’s citizens to track the locations of protests and police activity, with the intent, so said its developer, of helping people avoid trouble spots and stay safe. In a statement, Apple said “the app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement. This app violates our guidelines and local laws.”
Apple had tried to avoid a flare-up with a quiet rejection of the app’s initial application. The U.S. company told the app’s developer that HKMap Live “facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity that is not legal, allowing users to evade law enforcement.” the developer countered this, saying “we don’t encourage any advice on the map in general—our goal is safety for everyone.”
But China’s state media publicly accused the developer of “ill intentions,” and Apple of “helping rioters,” asking “what was [Apple’s] true intention?” And then “does this mean Apple intended to be an accomplice to the rioters,” given its decision “to approve the app in the App Store?”
Intense pressure that delivered a stunning reversal.
As I have written before, Apple treads a fine line in China. A disappointing 10% of the world’s largest smartphone market that it is desperately keen to hold. The impending threats of a U.S. trade war and its impact on the company’s core manufacturing base. And $50 billion of annual China sales.
“Apple’s reversal on the app,” commented the Times, “comes amid the backdrop of intense pressure from the Chinese government on multinational companies to stay out of the continuing protests in Hong Kong.”
Apple has been criticised in the past for its soft pedalling on China. And this latest submission, coming as publicly as it has, will be a major embarrassment for the U.S. company that prides reputation above all else. Apple is now firmly embroiled in Chinese politics and will spend the coming days defending its position.