Apple in eye of China/Hong Kong storm

Tech giant is facing pressure from both sides of the Hong Kong protester movement, while Google has also kowtowed to Chinese influence.

Apple: ad in Hong Kong
Apple: ad in Hong Kong

Apple has removed an app that allowed Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors to organise and track police movements and has pulled a reputable news app that has written extensively on the protests from its China app store – moves that have placed it in the centre of a complex political debate.

The tech giant initially approved the HKmap.live app – which crowdsources real-time locations of traffic obstructions, police and protestors in the territory – but on Wednesday (9 October) it succumbed to pressure from Chinese state media and withdrew it from its digital store.

Earlier in the week, People’s Daily, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party of China, said in a blog post that Apple was aiding "rioters" in Hong Kong by approving the app and that it had "betrayed the feelings of the Chinese people".

Apple chief executive Tim Cook has defended the decision to pull HKmap.live, saying in an email to employees on Thursday that the company had received "credible information" from the authorities and people in Hong Kong "that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimise individuals and property where no police are present". As a result, he said, the app violated Apple rules and local laws.

Now the company is facing a different set of criticisms: from the app’s creators, the market’s citizens and its global supporters.

The app’s developers said on Twitter that Apple’s decision was "clearly a political decision to suppress freedom and human rights in #HongKong". They went on to claim there is "zero evidence" to support the accusation that the app has been used to target and ambush police and threaten public safety, and questioned how it violated Apple’s rules while similar apps, such as crowdsourced traffic app Waze, were still permitted on the app store.

Charles Mok, a member of Hong Kong’s legislative council, posted a letter he had written to Cook on Twitter, in which he said he was "deeply disappointed with Apple’s decision to ban the app, and would like to contest the claims made by Hong Kong police force".

"HKmap.live helps HK residents, journalists, tourists, etc… avoid being hurt by teargas, rubber bullets, baton, beanbag round and water cannon that the Hong Kong police claims to be ‘minimum force’, and get real-time updates of public transport," Mok wrote.

Meanwhile, Apple is also being criticised for removing news organisation Quartz’s app from its store in China, saying that "it includes content that is illegal in China", according to Quartz, which received the notice from Apple on 30 September. The US news site has been extensively covering the Hong Kong protests.

Quartz chief executive Zach Seward said in response: "We abhor this kind of government censorship of the internet." 

Elsewhere, Google also removed an app from its app store this week that was associated with the ongoing Hong Kong protests. The app was a pro-Hong Kong protestor game called The Revolution of our Times. It was pulled from the Play Store this week for violating a policy that bans "capitalising on sensitive events such as attempting to make money from serious ongoing conflicts or tragedies through a game", according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

Apple and Google are among several brands that have been swept up in the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. See Campaign Asia-Pacific's coverage here.

A version of this story first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific

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