On Wednesday, Apple removed an app designed to track police officers called HKmap.live from its App Store in a controversial move that is raising questions about the company’s commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy. HKmap.live was available on the App Store for just days before it was removed on the basis that it violated local laws and enabled protestors to attack the police in Hong Kong. The move came in the wake of intense criticism from state-run Chinese media, as the People’s Daily, a flagship newspaper run by the Chinese Communist Party, accused Apple of helping “rioters.” Apple gave a statement justifying its removal of the app, saying it had 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.”
As China forms one of the most important markets for Apple and other technology companies, navigating the politics of the pro-democracy protests which have only intensified over the past several months presents a difficult situation. Companies like Apple generally strive to avoid giving the appearance of supporting or opposing political causes, though the company notes that principles like enabling private communication and protecting the security of their users’ personal data are foundational in the design of their products. However, when operating in countries that impose restrictions on human rights as a matter of law like China, Apple and other companies are often forced to make decisions that have inherently political ramifications as they balance their profit motive against the fundamental rights of their customers. Given the unprecedented intensity of the ongoing Hong Kong protests, the reluctant political involvement of large corporations has perhaps never been as consequential as it is at this juncture.
Other companies have also been drawn into the political minefield that arises when operating in China during the Hong Kong protests. An executive of the Houston Rockets tweeted his support of the protests this week, for instance, leading to an apology by the Rockets and the cancellation of broadcasts of N.B.A. games in China, one of their largest markets. And the video game company Blizzard recently banned a professional gamer who expressed support of democracy in Hong Kong during a company-sponsored livestream, forcing him to forfeit $10,000 in prize money and leading to an outcry from the gaming community and an employee walkout at Blizzard offices. The ban was necessary in order for the company to comply with China’s censorship laws, even though it plainly contradicted the company’s core values. By continuing to operate in China under their strict anti-free-speech laws, companies like Blizzard tacitly support a totalitarian regime, as withdrawing their business in China would put economic and political pressure on the Chinese government to loosen restrictions on free speech.
Of all the companies affected in this way by the ongoing political turmoil in China, perhaps none have a more direct and significant impact on policy than Apple. As one of the world’s largest smartphone manufacturers which serves more than 243 million customers in China, Apple is uniquely positioned to impact the flow of information within the authoritarian regime, particularly at a moment when that information threatens the very foundation of the country’s rule over its citizens. Though the Chinese internet is heavily censored, with a variety of social media apps banned and replaced by alternatives managed by the government, Apple nevertheless has some degree of leverage in the form of its software offerings to the Chinese people. As such, the backlash against the company for its latest capitulation to the regime is hard for the company’s socially conscious customers around the world to ignore.
However, the Chinese market remains fairly critical to Apple’s success as a whole, as the company exploits cheap labor in the country to manufacture its products at a competitive price and the Chinese consumer base is the company’s second-largest market. Furthermore, Apple has only recently begun to make headway in the country, and its recent success in the stock market has been based on a belief in the success of continued expansion in this market. As such, it’s probably not reasonable to expect that Apple will sacrifice the economic opportunity presented in China by strengthening its support of human rights with its technology, despite the international outcry. That being said, the company’s PR efforts to depict itself as friendly to human rights is likely to ramp up in the coming weeks in response to the public damage to its image caused by its complacency in the ongoing political crisis.