Apple found itself in the crosshairs of Chinese government anger over the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong Wednesday, with a key state-media outlet in Beijing accusing the U.S. tech giant of promoting a mapping application for smartphones that helps protesters in Hong Kong evade police.
“Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision,” the People’s Daily, a mouthpiece paper of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing, warned in an opinion article published Wednesday.
The warning, which threatened to escalate already simmering tensions between Apple and China’s government, came against the backdrop of an entirely separate fight playing out this week between Chinese authorities and America’s National Basketball Association over a pro-Hong Kong movement tweet by one of the league’s general managers.
Chinese authorities continued canceling NBA-sponsored events in China Wednesday and Chinese state media hurled criticism at NBA commissioner Adam Silver over his defense of free speech a day earlier — the latest developments in a mounting political fracas that began last Friday after the since deleted tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.
Various international reports on Wednesday drew attention to the new Chinese state-media criticism now targeting Apple, which has pursued China as one of its biggest international markets in recent years.
The People’s Daily opinion article ran under the headline: “Is Apple helping HK rioters engage in more violence?”
“Apple recently allowed a map app to be available on its App Store,” the article said. “This mobile app claims to provide transportation information for the convenience of the public, but is actually used to identify the whereabouts of the police, allowing the rioters in Hong Kong to go on violent acts.”
“The developers of the map app had ill intentions by providing a ‘navigation service’ for the rioters,” it said. “Apple’s approval for the app obviously helps rioters. What was its true intention?”
The article went on: “Business is business, and politics is politics. Nobody wants to drag Apple into the lingering unrest in Hong Kong. But people have reason to assume that Apple is mixing business with politics, and even illegal acts.”
There was no immediate response from the U.S. tech giant, although there are indications that debate may have been heated among Apple executives over whether to allow sale of the app, known as HKmap.live, on Apple’s App Store.
Bloomberg News reported on Oct. 3 that HKmap.live is a mobile version of a website that helps users avoid potentially dangerous areas, according to the developer, who uses the alias Kuma to remain anonymous.
The App was was initially rejected from the App Store because it “facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity that is not legal…Specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement,” Apple told the developer, according to a copy of the rejection notice seen by Bloomberg.
However, Apple later reversed its decision and suddenly began allowing sale of HKmap.live on the App Store in late September, the news outlet reported.
There has been at least on past instance in which Apple acknowledged blocking an app at the Beijing’s request.
The New York Times noted Wednesday that Apple, complying with what the tech giant said was a request from Chinese authorities, had removed news apps created by The Times from the app store in China in late 2016.
The Times maintained that China had been blocking its websites since 2012, after a series of articles on wealth amassed by the family of then-Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, but that Beijing had been struggling in 2016 to prevent access to a Chinese-language app produced by the newspaper.
After Apple had then removed the app, The Times quoted Fred Sainz, an Apple spokesman, as saying the tech giant had “been informed that the app [was] in violation of local regulations” in China.
U.S.-based analysts and former officials have seized on the more recent developments involving Apple and Hong Kong. Many took to social media on Wednesday to say the People’s Daily article was as clear warning by the Communist Party in Beijing that Apple could face repercussions and possibly even Chinese government restrictive measures going forward.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang claimed ignorance during a press conference in Beijing Wednesday when asked whether authorities had asked Apple to remove the HKmap.live app.
While Mr. Geng made no mention of Apple, he took the opportunity to describe the recent unrest in Hong Kong as “criminal” and claimed that “anyone with good conscience and a sense of justice should oppose such criminal activities instead of supporting or condoning them.”
Analysts say Chinese authorities are increasingly wary that the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous global financial hub on China’s southern coast, could spread into mainland China and challenge the government in Beijing.
The protests in Hong Kong were sparked in June when a Beijing-appointed city administrator moved to enact an extradition law that opponents said would put residents of the territory at risk of being sent to China, where they could face politically motivated trials.
Some saw the law as an open threat by China — which is under increasing economic strain from its trade war with Washington — to the autonomy of private banks and other businesses run from Hong Kong because extradition could potentially be used to coerce the heads of such firms.
The proposed law has been withdrawn in the face of widespread popular outrage, but the protest movement has increased its momentum. Demonstrations have taken on a wider, pro-democracy scope with demands for free elections in Hong Kong. Adding a pro-American strain, some protesters wave U.S. flags and even sing “The Star- Spangled Banner.”
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