The company has pulled at least two apps used by the protesters.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that Apple’s decision to remove Hkmap.live, an app which was used by protesters in Hong Kong to track the movement of police, from the Chinese App store was due to information that the app “was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present”. This is despite the fact that the app does not show the locations of individual officers at all, but rather general concentrations of police units, and so appears be simply incapable of doing what Mr Cook claims.
Mr Cook made the comments in a private memo to employees, which of course leaked immediately. It can be read in full here.
Apple also recently removed the news app of Quartz, which has been covering the protests in great detail since their beginnings, saying that their content was illegal in China. Apple reportedly made the move after complaints from the Chinese Government about the coverage of the protests. Quartz now say that China have banned their entire website.
Apple has previously worked quite closely with the Chinese Government, which is unsurprising given that China made up $9.2 billion of the $53 billion that Apple made in Q3 2019, and has privately told its people to avoid creating anything that portrayed China in a poor light.
Apple has also previously provided data on it customer to the Chinese Government 96-98% of the time they have been asked by the Chinese to do so, significantly above the rates of compliance they have with requests by Western Governments. They have even gone so far as to remove the Taiwanese flag emoji from their phones in China, as China does not accept the existence of Taiwan as a legitimate state.
Given Apple’s relationship with the Chinese Government it would appear likely that Apple’s decision to remove apps that are of benefit to the protesters is more about protecting its market share in China than it is about protecting its users from harm. Given the violent behaviour of some of the Chinese forces in Hong Kong this move is probably more likely to actually cause Apple’s users in Hong Kong harm than it is to stop it.
The Chinese Government has never hesitated to use its powers to shut firms out of its markets, and Apple are well aware of this given that they’re previously been on the receiving end of the Chinese Government’s displeasure. Mr Cook’s comments likely represent nothing more than the bare minimum required to save face whilst doing exactly what the Chinese Government tells him he has to do to continue operating in China.
The protests have created a difficult situation for many Western firms who operate in the Chinese market, particularly those who come from countries with a strong tradition of liberty, and has given rise to questions about China that Western governments had assumed settled long ago. We were told that trade to China would export liberal, democratic values to China, and now it seems that not only has that not happened, but instead Western firms now find themselves increasing kowtowing to a regime that has no respect for free trade, that has no respect for human rights, that is reported to be literally harvesting organs from political prisoners, a sentence which should only be seen in the pages of a dystopian novel, and that is fundamentally unfree.
There’s an old joke, usually attributed to Samuel Beckett, of a man at a dinner party who tries to convince the woman sitting beside him to prostitute herself to him. She says no every time but he simple keeps offering ever increasing amounts of money. When he finally reaches a price so high she feels she has to say yes he tells her he has 5 pounds on him at the moment and asks if that would that do. She says ‘That’s outrageous, what do you take me for?’ to which he responds ‘We’ve already established that, now we’re merely haggling over the price’.
With China it seems many Western firms, Apple foremost amongst them, have shown us all exactly what they are, and they’re now merely haggling over the price.