An Apple store in Hong Kong on Jan. 4, 2019. The company has previously shown a willingness to block apps in China. Image: Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times
People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, was taking aim at Apple, accusing it of serving as an “escort” for “rioters” in Hong Kong by providing an app that allows protesters to track police movements.
“Letting poisonous software have its way is a betrayal of the Chinese people’s feelings,” warned the article, which appeared this week and was written under a pseudonym, “Calming the Waves.”
On Wednesday, Apple responded by removing the app — known as HKmap.life — from the iPhone store. It had approved the app’s sales just days before but said in a new statement that the company had realized that HKmap.life violated Apple guidelines “and local laws.”
“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,” the statement said.
Apple’s sudden reversal came as the Chinese government ramped up pressure on multinational companies to stay out of the continuing protests in Hong Kong. The cancellation of two NBA broadcasts this week over a pro-Hong Kong tweet by a Houston Rockets executive is part of the campaign.
Apple had already pulled the app for Quartz — an American news organization that has covered the protests — from the App Store in China. The company was facing further backlash over HKmap.life, with some internet users demanding a boycott of iPhones.
Analysts say the increasingly tough tone of the Chinese media is part of Beijing’s efforts to inflame nationalism at home and intimidate multinational companies into toeing the party line.
As China and the United States struggle to reach a trade deal, the war of words also reflects a broader geopolitical struggle.
“The psychological cold war has really begun,” said Yik Chan Chin, a lecturer in media and communication studies at the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China.
Chin said the crisis in Hong Kong, where demonstrations have continued for four months, had energized the state-run media because many mainland Chinese believe the protesters are seeking independence from Beijing.
“The whole discourse now is shaped toward supporting China’s position,” she said.
On Wednesday, the NBA continued to face criticism for the post on Hong Kong. The Shanghai Sports Federation announced that an NBA fan event scheduled for Wednesday evening had been canceled. The league apologized to Chinese fans, but its leaders have also spoken about the importance of free speech and pursuing principles over profit, drawing a further backlash in China.
The scrutiny of Apple began over the weekend, after Chinese news outlets picked up on a Bloomberg report that Apple was allowing the app, HKmap.live, to be downloaded through its App Store. Tens of thousands of internet users took to Weibo, a microblogging site, to express outrage.
Apple had previously rejected HKmap.live from the App Store, saying it allowed people to evade law enforcement, the app’s developer said in a Twitter message, but the company changed course last week.
Apple has previously shown a willingness to block apps in China at the government’s request. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The app is popular among protesters, who use it to avoid the police and tear gas during tense standoffs that have raged across the city. It is currently the most downloaded travel app in Hong Kong.
Furor over the app intensified late Tuesday, after People’s Daily published the editorial, which warned of unspecified consequences for Apple.
Chinese commentators often use pseudonyms, and “Calming the Waves” specializes in articles about the Hong Kong crisis with headlines like “Ban masks, sterilize and disinfect Hong Kong.” The author, who began publishing about the demonstrations this month, has said that the protesters are “utterly evil” and that Beijing will not compromise with them.
Some free speech advocates expressed concern about the increasingly aggressive tone in the Chinese news media, saying it showed the government’s eagerness to punish foreign companies until they embraced the party’s point of view wholeheartedly.
“If you show your willingness to back down and kowtow to the party, the party considers you a pushover,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “They will increasingly encroach on your bottom line.”
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©2019 New York Times News Service