Apple has found itself in a PR nightmare in recent days, with the tech giant’s troubled relationship with China thrust into an unwelcoming media spotlight. What began as a little trouble in big China—the withdrawal of an app that let Hong Kong’s citizens track protest trouble spots, has become a fiery geopolitical debate over Apple’s loyalties and whether it puts profits before politics, reality before reputation.
This started with an app—but it has now pushed Apple’s track record of acquiescence to Beijing into the media. It has also exposed a leaning towards continuing self-censorship on Apple’s part that has even embroiled the company’s new flagship TV streaming service. Never before has Apple’s China problem presented such a challenge to the wider business, with such potential for lasting reputational damage.
The game of yoyo HKMap Live played with Apple’s App Store is well documented. The app crowdsources Hong Kong citizen data to track protests and police activity. At first Apple rejected it for “allowing users to evade law enforcement.” There was a public backlash that led to Apple reversing its decision. This in turn led to threats against Apple in China’s state media for being “reckless” and a warning of “consequences.” And that led to the app being rejected from Apple’s store once again.
The strength of criticism directed at Apple following that re-reversal was enough to prompt CEO Tim Cook to write to staff. “These decisions are never easy,” he said, “and it is harder still to discuss these topics during moments of furious public debate.”
In his letter, Cook shared Apple’s official line, that the company had “credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimise individuals and property where no police are present. This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law.”
Needless to say, the fact that Apple’s information came primarily from the Hong Kong authorities somewhat undermined its credibility. The app focuses on concentrations of police officers, not individuals as had been claimed, and there is no reporting of unpoliced areas—except if you judge empty parts of the map to have malicious intent.
Charles Mok, a member of Hong Kong’s legislative council wrote to Cook, accusing Apple of putting profits before values, and stressing that its decision will “cause problems for normal Hong Kong’s citizens trying to avoid police presence while they are under constant fear of police brutality.”
As many fiery headlines as it has made, HKMap Live is still a sideshow for Apple. But it has pushed its wider relationship with China into the media, and that’s a serious issue for the company. Apple has form for keeping Beijing happy. As reported by the South China Morning Post, this was one of many examples of the times “Apple gave in to China,” and in combination it presents a narrative that will be unwelcome in Cupertino.
The newspaper listed out the recent removal of the Taiwan flag emoji in the latest updates to iOS 13; the restrictions on engraving Apple products in China with words that the state might find offensive, terms linked to Taiwan, Falun Gong, dissidents, dictatorship, independence, human rights; the removal of “unacceptable” Western news outlets from China’s App Store, as well as gambling sites and VPNs that push too hard against China’s “Great Firewall.” There is also the restrictions on iBooks and iTunes movies, and the storage of Chinese users’ iCloud data inside China to comply with local cybersecurity regulations—and facilitate state access requests.
All this was rehashed in the media after the HK Map Live controversy. And that led to a watch and wait approach as to what would come out next to back claims that Apple was compromising itself in China for all the wrong reasons.
It didn’t take long—but when it came, it was still unexpected. As reported by BuzzFeed News, Apple preemptively censored content for its forthcoming Apple TV+ service, telling show runners “to avoid portraying China in a poor light.” BuzzFeed News was told by sources that “the instruction was communicated by Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services, and Morgan Wandell, its head of international content development.” No comment from Apple.
The ongoing tech Cold War between the U.S. and China, with its tariffs and sanctions, presents a major threat to Apple—the country provides some $50 billion in sales and its core manufacturing base. The politics of Apple’s relationship with Beijing have made headlines before—exchanging letters with U.S. lawmakers in 2017 over VPN removals and neglecting to mention China over the cyberattacks on iOS devices linked to the Uighur population a few weeks ago. But this seems lasting, with media scrutiny into how Apple will handle itself at every turn—a nightmare for the company.
Ultimately, there is a strong chance that Apple will turn a corner at some point and its relationship with China will gradually diminish—to some extent, at least. The company is exploring options to shift manufacturing to other locations in Asia given business risk and the impact of new tariffs on Chinese-made goods. There are also the U.S. sanctions against Huawei (and others) that has led to speculation that China will follow suit at some point.
Given this is Apple, there is also the reputational dimension—U.S. tech giants have all played the game with China. Microsoft and Google in particular have faced criticism for their work with Chinese entities and seeming double-standards when it comes to enabling technology freedoms to be compromised inside the country. But this is Apple. It presents itself as adhering to a higher set of standards.
Above all, though, there is realpolitik around the split emerging between East and West. Apple’s exposure to China is moving at a fairly rapid pace from opportunity to threat, and so in Cupertino, one can image seriously grown-up contingency planning taking place even as the company publicly defends its stance.