Apple’s complex and high-risk relationship with the Chinese government took another twist this week, with the company enraging China’s state media into publishing an article on October 9, slamming the U.S. tech giant for its approval of an app that has been “allowing the rioters in Hong Kong to go on violent acts.”
The criticism surrounds an app called HKMap Live, which claims to help Hong Kong’s citizens track the locations of protests and police activity, with the intent, it says, of helping people avoid trouble spots and stay safe. The app was originally rejected by Apple and refused entry into the App Store. That unleashed a wave of protests that eventually saw the decision overturned and the app allowed into the store.
“Nobody wants to drag Apple into the lingering unrest in Hong Kong,” the People’s Daily warns, “but people have reason to assume that Apple is mixing business with politics, and even illegal acts. Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision.” The newspaper is the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party. It speaks for the country’s leadership.
Apple did try to avoid a flare-up. HKMap Live was submitted to the App Store on September 21, rejected on September 26, resubmitted on October 2, rejected again the same day. And one can’t help but conclude that the reversal was prompted by the very public and irate backlash to the app’s rejection.
Apple’s original rejection of the app cited legal complexities. The company explained to the developer that his app “facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity that is not legal, allowing users to evade law enforcement.” The app shares information from the public to identify where trouble has flared up. “We don’t encourage any advice on the map in general,” the developer said, “our goal is safety for everyone.”
China unsurprisingly disagrees. “The developers of the map app had ill intentions,” says the People’s Daily, “Apple’s approval for the app obviously helps rioters. What was its true intention?”
The state media article includes the usual Chinese slant on the situation in Hong Kong—“severe times” and citizens becoming “tired of the unrest.” The article also accuses the protesters of “conducting violent acts more frequently,” asking the extraordinarily provocative question: “Does this mean Apple intended to be an accomplice to the rioters,” given that the U.S. tech giant “chose to approve the app in the App Store?”
Apple treads a fine line in China. It’s share of the world’s largest smartphone market has dropped to 10% as it has lost ground to local rivals, it has been forced by the U.S. trade war into exploring options for shifting manufacturing away from its primary base, and when an iOS hack was traced to China’s suppression of its Uighur minority, Apple infamously neglected to reference China in its statements, choosing instead to attack Google for inaccuracies in its reporting.
The reality is that Apple cannot afford to push Beijing too far—the impact to its manufacturing base and $50 billion of annual China sales would hit hard. And this is the risk, set against the backdrop of the U.S. blacklisting Chinese tech champions and the ongoing trade war and now the Hong Kong protests. “The map app is just the tip of the iceberg,” complains the People’s Daily. “In the Apple Music Store in Hong Kong, there was also a song advocating “Hong Kong independence.” Such a song was once removed from the music store and has resurrected.”