Apple removed an app past due Wednesday that enabled protesters in Hong Kong to track police, a day after going through extreme criticism from Chinese country media for it, plunging the technology large deeper into the complex politics of a country this is fundamental to its business.
Apple said it turned into withdrawing the app, referred to as Hkmap. Stay, from its App Store just days after approving it because authorities in Hong Kong stated protesters were using it to attack police in the semiautonomous town.
A day earlier, People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial that accused Apple of aiding “rioters” in Hong Kong. “Letting poisonous software have its way is a betrayal of the Chinese people’s feelings,” said the article, which was written under a pseudonym that translates into “Calming the Waves.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Apple said, “The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement. This app violates our guidelines and local laws.”
With its reversal, Apple joins a growing list of corporations that are trying to navigate the fraught political situation between China and Hong Kong, where antigovernment protests have unfolded for months.
That minefield was evident this week when the N.B.A. was drawn into the tensions by a Houston Rockets executive who tweeted his support of the Hong Kong protests. The tweet prompted a backlash from Chinese authorities, leading to apologies by the Rockets and ultimately the cancellation of broadcasts of N.B.A. games in China, which is one of the N.B.A.’s largest markets.
Companies ranging from Marriott to United Airlines to Versace have also had to backtrack on perceived slights to the Chinese government in the past, such as customer surveys that suggested Taiwan was an independent nation. All the firms are having to balance the enormous economic opportunity in China, with its 1.4 billion consumers, with the negative public image of capitulating to an authoritarian government.
No multinational company arguably has as much at stake in China as Apple. The Silicon Valley giant assembles nearly all of its products in China and counts the country as its No. 3 market after the United States and Europe. It tallied nearly $44 billion in sales in the greater China region, which includes Taiwan and Hong Kong, in the 12 months that ended on June 30. Apple’s stock price often rises or falls depending on how it is performing in China
Given Apple’s stature as one of the world’s most valuable public companies, its actions in China are closely watched. Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said Apple’s decision to remove the Hong Kong app would embolden 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.
A Twitter account that claimed to be run by the developer of HKmap.live said in a brief exchange on Wednesday that Apple’s reasoning for the app’s removal — that protesters were using it to attack police — was false.
“That is ridiculous,” said the person running the account, who declined to provide a name or elaborate further. The HKmap.live Twitter account later tweeted that it would “never solicit, promote, or encourage criminal activity.”