As of October 10, 2019, Apple has removed the HKmap.live app from the App Store, stating that the app “has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong.” Apple originally rejected HKmap.live from inclusion in the App Store on October 1, claiming that it allowed users to “evade law enforcement”. After reversing this decision three days later, the company has now flip-flopped again.
HKmap.live is a website and application that uses crowdsourced information to track the locations of protesters and police, along with road closures caused by the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. According to the app developer’s Twitter account, the iPhone version of the app has been downloaded more than 120,000 times, making it the most downloaded travel app in Hong Kong since the beginning of October.
A version of the mapping service is still accessible on the HKmap.live website. The Android app is also still available on the Google Play store.
Reactions to Apple’s stated reasons for removing HKmap
HKmap.live shared on Twitter Apple’s official statement about the app’s removal, which reads:
HKmap’s developers responded, “There is 0 evidence to support Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau (CSTCB)’s accusation. HKmap App never solicits, promotes, or encourages criminal activity. HKmap App consolidates information from user and public sources, e.g. live news stream, Facebook and Telegram.”
Pro-democracy Hong Kong legislator Charles Mok has publicly sided with the app maker. Mok Tweeted on October 10 that he had sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, in defense of HKmap.live.
“The user-generated information shared using HKmap.live in fact helps citizens avoid areas where pedestrians not involved in any criminal activities might be subjected to police brutality which many human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have observed,” Mok wrote.
“We Hongkongers will definitely look closely at whether Apple chooses to uphold its commitment to free expression and other basic human rights, or become an accomplice for Chinese censorship and oppression,” he added.
The New York Times reported that Mr. Cook wrote an email to his employees addressing the issue. He said that he had received “credible information” from civil authorities and citizens in Hong Kong “that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present.”
Nevertheless, skeptics continue to view Apple’s rejection of the app as evidence of mainland China exerting control over the company.
China’s influence over Apple
In 2017, Apple removed the New York Times App from its China website. The decision came after the Times reported on billions of dollars in secret perks and subsidies that the Chinese government provides to the world’s biggest iPhone factory.
In September of this year, Apple removed the US news app Quartz from the App Store in China. Quartz had been regularly reporting on the Hong Kong protests. Apple’s official notice said that the app was removed “because it includes content that is illegal in China.”
When Apple made the decision on October 4 to host HKmap.live on the App Store, state-run Chinese media outlets condemned the move. Tens of thousands of internet users took to the Chinese social media site Weibo to express their outrage.
The day before Apple removed the app, China Daily published an opinion piece criticizing Apple’s decision to allow “toxic apps” on the App Store. Although the article didn’t mention HKmap.live by name, it argued that Apple was “helping Hong Kong rioters engage in more violence”. The writers continued,
“Providing a gateway for ‘toxic apps’ is hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, twisting the facts of Hong Kong affairs, and against the views and principles of the Chinese people. Apple and other corporations should be able to discern right from wrong. They also need to know that only the prosperity of China and China’s Hong Kong will bring them a broader and more sustainable market.”
What the Chinese economy means to Apple
Apple’s stake in the fate of China’s economy is sizable. The New York Times reported that Apple generated nearly $44 billion in sales in “greater China” (a designation that includes the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan) from July 2018 through June 2019. This number represents almost a fifth of the company’s global sales.
In addition, Apple manufactures the majority of its products in China, with 10,000 direct employees in the country. Overall, Apple’s presence in China has created about about 5 million jobs, according to the BBC.
In 2017, Cook spoke at the Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou, where he discussed the company’s rich history and future in China. When the country’s politics came up, Cook said that while he disagreed with some Chinese policies, Apple must comply with local laws.
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, told the New York Times that Apple’s decision about the HKmap app only encourages the Chinese Communist Party. “I think the party concludes from this that intimidation, harassment and pressure work for most people, in most places,” she said.