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Apple Removes App That Tracked Hong Kong Police

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SAN FRANCISCO — Apple removed an app late Wednesday that enabled protesters in Hong Kong to track police, a day after facing intense criticism from Chinese state media for it, plunging the technology giant deeper into the complicated politics of a country that is fundamental to its business.

Apple said it was withdrawing the app, called HKmap.live, from its App Store just days after approving it because authorities in Hong Kong said protesters were using it to attack police in the semiautonomous city.

A day earlier, People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial that accused Apple of aiding “rioters” in Hong Kong. “Letting poisonous software have its way is a betrayal of the Chinese people’s feelings,” said the article, which was written under a pseudonym that translates into “Calming the Waves.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Apple said, “The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app 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.”

With its reversal, Apple joins a growing list of corporations that are trying to navigate the fraught political situation between China and Hong Kong, where antigovernment protests have unfolded for months.

[How Hong Kong’s protests have evolved into a broader pushback against Beijing.]

That minefield was evident this week when the N.B.A. was drawn into the tensions by a Houston Rockets executive who tweeted his support of the Hong Kong protests. The tweet prompted a backlash from Chinese authorities, leading to apologies by the Rockets and ultimately the cancellation of broadcasts of N.B.A. games in China, which is one of the N.B.A.’s largest markets.

Companies ranging from Marriott to United Airlines to Versace have also had to backtrack on perceived slights to the Chinese government in the past, such as customer surveys that suggested Taiwan was an independent nation. All the firms are having to balance the enormous economic opportunity in China, with its 1.4 billion consumers, with the negative public image of capitulating to an authoritarian government.

No multinational company arguably has as much at stake in China as Apple. The Silicon Valley giant assembles nearly all of its products in China and counts the country as its No. 3 market after the United States and Europe. It tallied $32.5 billion in sales in the greater China region, which includes Taiwan and Hong Kong, in the nine months ended June 30. Apple’s stock price often rises or falls depending on how it is performing in China.

Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has become a deft diplomat in China. He has traveled there frequently and attended numerous Chinese government events. In recent months, Mr. Cook has argued for moderation in the trade war between the United States and China. Unlike in the United States, where he regularly speaks out on political issues like gun control and immigration, he has largely remained silent on Chinese politics, including the clashes in Hong Kong.

In late 2017, Mr. Cook said at a conference that while he disagrees with some Chinese policies, Apple must comply with local laws. “Each country in the world decides their laws and their regulations, and so your choice is: Do you participate? Or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be?” he said. “You get in the arena, because nothing ever changes from the sideline.”

Given Apple’s stature as one of the world’s most valuable public companies, its actions in China are closely watched. Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said Apple’s decision to remove the Hong Kong app would embolden the Chinese Communist Party.

“I think the party concludes from this that intimidation, harassment and pressure work for most people, in most places,” she said.

A Twitter account that claimed to be run by the developer of HKmap.live said in a brief exchange on Wednesday that Apple’s reasoning for the app’s removal — that protesters were using it to attack police — was false.

“That is ridiculous,” said the person running the account, who declined to provide a name or elaborate further. The HKmap.live Twitter account later tweeted that it would “never solicit, promote, or encourage criminal activity.”

The HKmap.live app shows a map of Hong Kong with updates from users on the location of police, their water cannons and safe zones, among other things. Apple initially rejected the app for enabling users to evade police, the app’s Twitter account said last week. Several days later, the account tweeted that Apple had reversed course and approved the app. The app soon became the most downloaded travel app in Hong Kong — and criticism from mainland China began.

After the People’s Daily editorial, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “anyone with a conscience and a sense of justice” should boycott the app.

Supporters of the app have argued it helps Hong Kong residents avoid clashes between police and protesters.

Apple also pulled the app of the news organization Quartz from the App Store in China less than two weeks ago. Quartz, which has been covering the Hong Kong protests, said that Apple sent it a vague notice about removing its app “because it includes content that is illegal in China.” Apple did not clarify what content was illegal, Quartz said. A Quartz editor tweeted that Apple removed it “at the request of China.”

Zach Seward, Quartz’s chief executive, said in a statement, “We abhor this kind of government censorship of the internet, and have great coverage of how to get around such bans around the world,” and included a link to its articles about software designed to dodge censorship.

An Apple spokesman declined to comment on the Quartz app on Wednesday.

Apple has removed other apps in China that it allows elsewhere, including The New York Times app and some services that enabled Chinese users to circumvent the government’s internet restrictions.

Apple has long prided itself on how every app in the App Store is approved by one of its employees, unlike the largely automated approach used by Google on Android phones. Apple employs teams of app reviewers who must meet quotas for reviewing apps, including dozens of Chinese-language specialists, according to former app reviewers. Apps that pose tricky policy questions are deliberated in weekly meetings of a review board of senior executives, led by Phil Schiller, a longtime Apple executive who heads the App Store.

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NYT > Business