Apple is among the most recognizable U.S. brands in China, and it relies heavily on the country for manufacturing and sales. The Cupertino, Calif., giant was lambasted for approving the app and accused of showing support for the protesters.
Critics say HKmap.live - which denotes the presence of police with an emoji of a dog, a widely used insult for police officers during the protests—will help protesters commit crimes and evade arrest.
The People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, condemned Apple, writing late Tuesday that “such toxic software” betrays the feelings of Chinese people. “Apple, like other companies, should be able to distinguish between right and wrong and understand that its market would only be more promising and substantial if China and Hong Kong are doing well,” the commentary said.
HKmap.live is available in Hong Kong, the U.S. and elsewhere through Apple’s App Store as well as in Google Play Store. It isn’t clear whether Google is also in the Chinese government’s sights. The map app isn’t available in mainland China, where Apple has deleted hundreds of apps in recent years to meet local laws.
Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment. Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a commercial agreement to supply news through Apple services.
Apple is only the latest American business to be hit by controversy for inflaming Chinese sensitivities. Many of the recent incidents have centered on the four-month-long antigovernment protests in Hong Kong, which is a Chinese special administrative region. Protesters have taken aim at Beijing’s rule and in many cases targeted branches of mainland Chinese businesses.
The National Basketball Association is in a tense standoff with Beijing after a Houston Rockets executive tweeted in support of the protests. This week, New York-based luxury brand Tiffany & Co. deleted a tweet that some Chinese users said supported the protests.
Apple hasn’t drawn the level of scorn enveloping the NBA in China. Still, Duncan Clark, a Beijing-based technology consultant, said the challenge Apple now faces is “how to keep Chinese consumers onside along with the Chinese government, but not fall foul of Western consumers and governments, especially the Trump administration.”
Apple was criticized in 2017 in the U.S. after disclosing that it had removed roughly 700 virtual private network, or VPN, apps from its Chinese App Store by the fall of that year. VPN apps allow users to circumvent China’s so-called Great Firewall to access blocked websites. Apple said it was simply following Chinese laws and regulations.
HKmap.live is a crowd-sourcing app that relies on contributors who submit live feeds to its database. The app uses different emojis to give live updates and traffic information about locations across the city, especially during protests.
Some icons are self-explanatory, like emojis for ambulances or police wagons. Others require a more nuanced understanding of the protests. For example, water drops are used to symbolize the location of water cannons used as a crowd-control tool by police. A dinosaur emoji warns of the elite snatch-and-arrest police squads known as “raptors.”
According to the developer’s Twitter account, @hkmaplive, Apple early this month kept the app from going on sale on its App Store, saying that it could be used to evade law enforcement. Days later, on Oct. 4, the developer said the app had been approved by Apple.
“I don’t think the application is illegal in Hong Kong,” the app’s developer said in an interview. The developer, who declined to give his or her name, citing safety concerns, said the app merely consolidates information that is publicly available, for example, on Telegram, an app that protesters have been using to communicate.
Little is known about the developer, who is soliciting donations via bitcoin, the anonymized cryptocurrency, to support the app and other projects.
The Chinese Communist Party’s Youth League on Tuesday drew attention to HKmap.live when it criticized the app, and Apple, on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service. The post solicited criticisms from Chinese internet users. “Support the Chinese brands and time to take Apple off the shelf,” one user said.
On Weibo, a hashtag that accuses Apple of helping publicize the movements of Hong Kong police had been viewed about 14 million times by Wednesday afternoon.
Traditionally focused on hardware, Apple in recent years has increasingly set its sights on expanding services such as its App Store business, which involves dealing with content.
At Apple, apps made by third parties are generally vetted by hundreds of the company’s reviewers based in the U.S., Ireland and China. They evaluate apps to make sure they abide by the company’s guidelines and are complete and compatible.
Developers of apps that are rejected can appeal to a review board, which ultimately reports to Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller, who oversees the App Store.
Apple’s business model has been scrutinized in the context of the U.S.-China trade war that began last year. A reliance on the Chinese market leaves Apple exposed should Beijing decide to retaliate against the U.S. by fanning nationalistic sentiments among consumers to squeeze sales of American goods.
Apple is already grappling with sliding sales in China, where domestic rivals such as Huawei Technologies Co. sell phones with similar features to the iPhone at lower prices.
I’d rather live with a good question than a bad answer.