“Chinese netizens hail Apple’s removal of app that aids HK rioters.”
That was how the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party outlet, covered Apple’s removal of HKmap.live, an app that helped Hong Kong protesters track police, from the iOS App Store. It was emblematic of the adulatory coverage news outlets controlled by the Chinese government have bestowed on Apple this week.
“Apple highly values the Chinese market and removing the controversial app is a smart move,” an analyst said in the article, driving home the party’s approval.
In the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, the story “Apple removes app which helped HK rioters elude police” was the business section’s most read story Friday.
Apple’s recent actions in China are a continuation of the company’s years-long practice of appeasing Beijing. To do business in China, the company adopts to local dictates, distasteful as they may be to its CEO Tim Cook, an outspoken gay rights advocate and privacy crusader. It’s an ironic inversion of a longstanding argument in the West that by bringing China into the world trade system, the country would adopt western values. Instead, China is asking tech companies to adopt its values — and Apple is willing to pay that price.
In early 2018 as development on Apple’s slate of exclusive Apple TV+ programming was underway, the company’s leadership gave guidance to the creators of some of those shows to avoid portraying China in a poor light, BuzzFeed News has learned. Sources in position to know said the instruction was communicated by Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services, and Morgan Wandell, its head of international content development. It was part of Apple’s ongoing efforts to remain in China’s good graces after a 2016 incident in which Beijing shut down Apple’s iBooks Store and iTunes Movies six months after they debuted in the country.
A spokesperson for Apple declined comment.
Apple’s tip toeing around the Chinese government isn’t unusual in Hollywood. It’s an accepted practice. “They all do it,” one showrunner who was not affiliated with Apple told BuzzFeed News. “They have to if they want to play in that market. And they all want to play in that market. Who wouldn’t?”
For Apple, which is in many ways already playing in that market and reliant on China for tens of billions in annual sales and the manufacture of the hundreds of millions of iPhones it sells around the world each year, it is particularly important to avoid running afoul of Chinese government. And as we’ve seen over the past week, it is particularly vigilant about apps.
Developers told BuzzFeed News the incidents are hardly anomalies.
“We just get a phone call from Apple and they say ‘We just got a call from the Chinese government’ and five minutes later our app is off the App Store,” one US technology executive told BuzzFeed News. “It’s not a line of communication that would be open to any discussion.”
“They have so much market power in general and they wield that pretty indiscriminately,” the US technology executive said of Apple.
The removal of HKmap.live was one of a series of actions Apple took at China’s instigation in the past week. Apple removed the Quartz app from its app store in China — “Presumably because of the excellent work our team in Hong Kong has been doing covering the protests,” Quartz technology editor Mike Murphy said — and removed the Taiwan flag emoji for iOS users in Hong Kong.
These were hardly the first of their kind. In the second half of 2018, Apple challenged or rejected just two of 56 app takedown requests from China, removing 517 apps at the government’s behest, according to the company’s transparency report. Apple said the vast majority of these apps were for porn and gambling, but it has also removed an unspecified number of virtual private networking and news apps. Apple provided customer data to the Chinese government 96% of the time when it asked about a device, and 98% of the time when it asked about an account. In the US, those numbers were around 80% and the US government did not make any app removal requests.
In September, Apple seemed to brush off the seriousness of an exploit attack directed at the Uighur ethnic minority. “The sophisticated attack was narrowly focused, not a broad-based exploit of iPhones ‘en masse,’” Apple said in a blog post acknowledging the attack. “The attack affected fewer than a dozen websites that focus on content related to the Uighur community.”
The blog post infuriated critics, who called out Apple’s appeasement of the Chinese government and seemingly callous attitude toward the plight of the Uighurs. “Apple’s response to this massive hack of iPhones is ‘don’t worry, it only affected the Uighur community’” Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, said at the time. “WTF,” Stoller added.
In 2018, the iPhone maker placed its iCloud storage and cryptographic keys for Chinese users in China, giving the government easier access to its customers’ data than when it was stored in the US. The company has also disappeared a song about Tiananmen Square from Apple Music in China and removed the New York Times app in the country.
“Given how authentically good Apple is at protecting user privacy, it’s very dismaying to see it doing the wrong thing in other areas, especially its relationship with the [Chinese Communist Party],” one former Apple employee told BuzzFeed News.
Apple is not the only US institution to run into controversy trying to maintain its values while remaining in the Chinese government’s good graces.
The National Basketball Association incurred China’s ire when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protesters this month. Known for their outspokenness, the NBA’s stars largely stayed mum on the issue, a reporter was shut down when asking about it, and fans were kicked out of arenas for bringing in messaging supporting the protests. Google, meanwhile, removed a game in which users could play as Hong Kong protesters from its Play Store. And game maker Blizzard faced a boycott after it suspended a player who supported Hong Kong protesters.
When Tim Cook tried to explain away its actions this week by saying protesters were using HKmap.live to “maliciously to target individual officers for violence” without providing evidence, even longtime Apple observer and blogger John Gruber, couldn’t stomach it.
“I can’t recall an Apple memo or statement that crumbles so quickly under scrutiny,” Gruber wrote. “For a company that usually measures umpteen times before cutting anything, it’s both sad and startling.”