Apple has removed an app from its Hong Kong app store that residents used to help avoid tear gas hours, after Chinese officials criticized the company.
The company claimed it made the decision to remove the HKMap.live app on Thursday because it was being used to “target and ambush police.” But the makers of the app say there is “zero evidence” to back up this claim, and that the app was primarily used by residents to stay safe and avoid tear gas.
The decision to remove the app puts Apple on a growing list of U.S. companies, including the NBA, Blizzard and Tiffany, that have kowtowed to Chinese pressure over Hong Kong in order to avoid sanctions from Beijing.
HKMap.live crowdsourced the location of police and anti-government protesters. It was initially rejected by Apple but the company reversed that decision on Oct. 4, with the app going live on the App Store a day later.
The app, which was available in the Hong Kong version of the App Store but not the Chinese version, quickly became Hong Kong’s most downloaded app in the travel category.
On Wednesday, Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily hit out at Apple in a piece titled: “Protecting rioters – Has Apple thought clearly about this?”
“Allowing the ‘poisonous’ app to flourish is a betrayal of the Chinese people’s feelings [and allowed] Hong Kong rioters to openly commit crime while openly escaping arrests,” the editorial said, without naming the app specifically.
Within hours, Apple responded.
“We have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app [HKmap.Live] 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, and we have removed it from the App Store,” the company said in a statement to VICE News.
The makers of the app, who have remained anonymous to protect themselves, slammed Apple for its decision, saying there is “zero evidence” to back up the claims by the Hong Kong authorities that the app was 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 developers pointed out that moderators deleted any user-generated content that solicited, promoted, or encouraged criminal activity and that repeat offenders were banned from the platform. The HKMap.live website remains accessible on iPhones.
“We once believed the app rejection is simply a bureaucratic f-up, but now it is clearly a political decision to suppress freedom and human right in #HongKong,” the developers tweeted.
But the removal of the HKMap.live app isn’t the only action Apple has taken at the request of the Chinese government this week.
Critics claim companies like Apple are simply bowing to Chinese pressure because they are worried about the possible loss of revenue caused by angering Beijing.
The NBA has distanced itself from the tweet sent by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey showing support of the protests after Chinese authorities reacted angrily. Games studio Blizzard banned a Hong Kong-based player of its popular game Hearthstone game after he said: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” in a live-streamed interview. And Tiffany removed a tweet showing a model covering one eye, thought to be a gesture of solidarity with Hong Kong demonstrators.
“History will remember all this groveling to authoritarians,” Zeynep Tufekci, a writer who is chronicling the protests in Hong Kong, said on Thursday.
Cover: Supporters of Hong Kong activist Edward Leung gather outside the High Court in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. Last year, Leung was sentenced to six years in prison for his part in a violent nightlong clash with police over illegal street food hawkers two years ago. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)