Apple Angers China by Approving Cop-Tracking Map App for Hong Kong

A pro-democracy protester blocks a road outside the Apple store during clashes with police in Hong Kong on Oct. 1. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Apple Inc. has joined the list of American companies under fire in China over the Hong Kong protests.

The iPhone maker triggered an angry response from Chinese state media and consumers when it approved a map app that allows protesters to track police movements.

Apple is among the most recognizable U.S. brands in China, a country that it relies on heavily for manufacturing and sales. The Cupertino, Calif.-based 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.

Late Tuesday, the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, strongly condemned Apple, writing 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.

The app is available in Hong Kong, the U.S. and elsewhere. It 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 in a series of American businesses dragged into controversy for inflaming Chinese sensitivities. Many of the recent incidents have centered around the four-month-long antigovernment protests in the Chinese special administrative region of Hong Kong. Protesters have taken aim at Beijing’s rule and in many cases targeted branches of mainland Chinese businesses.

The National Basketball Association is locked in an escalating 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 attracted the same level of ire in China as the NBA, though its situation is arguably more complex. Traditionally focused on hardware, Apple in recent years has increasingly set its sight on expanding services such as the App Store business, which involves dealing with content.

The challenge that 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,” says Duncan Clark, a Beijing-based technology consultant.

HKmap.live is a crowdsourcing app that relies on contributors who submit live feeds to its database. The app uses different emojis to pinpoint a location with live updates and traffic information, especially during a protest.

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 “raptors.”

According to the developer’s Twitter account, @hkmaplive, Apple earlier this month blocked 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, saying that it merely consolidates information that is publicly available—for example on Telegram, an app that protesters have been using to communicate. The developer declined to give his or her name, citing safety concerns.

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 after it criticized the app, and Apple, on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service. The post solicited criticisms from Chinese online users. “Support the Chinese brands and time to take Apple off the shelf,” said one user.

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.

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, who 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 declined to comment on the review process for HKmap.live.

Apple’s business model has been subjected to heavy scrutiny throughout the continuing U.S.-China trade war, which 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 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.

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 merely following Chinese laws and regulations.

Write to Yoko Kubota at [email protected]

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