As if piling up sandbags before a flood, Apple was well prepared to face a backlash over its decision to remove an app used by Hong Kong protesters.
But the firm’s carefully-worded statement offering its reasoning has left China watchers, politicians – and some famed Apple supporters – wholly unconvinced.
“Apple’s decision to cave to Communist China’s demands is unacceptable,” tweeted Rick Scott, a Republican senator for Florida.
“Putting profits above the human rights and dignity of the people of Hong Kong is wrong. No ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Late on Wednesday, the firm started briefing journalists on the move, pushing its view that the HKmap.live was being “used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents”.
On Thursday morning, Apple chief executive Tim Cook posted an internal memo.
“It’s out of my great respect for the work you do every day that I want to share the way we went about making this decision,” he wrote.
“Over the past several days we received 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 victimize individuals and property where no police are present. This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law.
“Similarly, widespread abuse clearly violates our App Store guidelines barring personal harm.”
Long-time Apple commentator John Gruber wrote of Mr Cook’s email: “I can’t recall an Apple memo or statement that crumbles so quickly under scrutiny.”
Apple has yet to provide any additional information about those claimed incidents. Charles Mok, a Hong Kong legislator who represents the IT industry in the territory, posted a letter to Mr Cook on Twitter.
“There are numerous cases of innocent passers-by in the neighbourhood injured by the Kong Kong Police Force’s excessive force in crowd dispersal operations,” he wrote.
“The user-generated information shared using HKmap.live in fact helps citizens avoid areas where pedestrians not involved in any criminal activities might be subjected to police brutality which many human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have observed.”
Mr Mok went on to argue that users on major social networks, such as Facebook or Twitter, also share information about police activity – but were not being held to the same standard.
“We Hongkongers will definitely look closely at whether Apple chooses to uphold its commitment to free expression and other basic human rights, or become an accomplice for Chinese censorship and oppression.”
Apple has not responded to the letter.
Censored South Park
Apple’s decision comes against a backdrop of major American firms being seen as bowing to political pressure from Beijing.
In just the past week, the NBA grovelled its way around a tweet from a team executive supporting the protests, while video games published Activision Blizzard banned e-sports competitor Ng Wai “Blitzchung” Chung for showing his support for the movement.
And Google removed a role-playing game called “Revolution of Our Times” from its app store after deeming it violated its policies on depicting “sensitive events” (the player plays the role of a Hong Kong protester). According to the Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong authorities had contacted Google with concerns about that app – though the company has said it decided to take action before any communication took place.
One bucking of the trend, however, came via Tim Sweeney, chief executive of Epic Games, the firm behind online multiplayer game Fortnite.
“Epic supports everyone’s right to speak freely,” he wrote on Twitter, in response to a question about gamers voicing support for Hong Kong protesters. Chinese tech giant Tencent owns 40% of the firm.
“China players of Fortnite are free to criticize the US or criticize Epic just as equally as all others,” Mr Sweeney said.
In characteristically astute timing, an episode of Comedy Central’s South Park earlier this month led Chinese censors to “delete virtually every clip, episode and online discussion of the show from Chinese streaming services, social media and even fan pages”, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
The episode featured four of the show’s main characters working on a film script that gets constantly altered so that it could be distributed in China.
“Well you know what they say,” the film’s director in the show says, “You gotta lower your ideals of freedom if you wanna suck on the warm teat of China.”
In Apple’s case that means revenues that are on course to exceed $40bn this year – almost a fifth of the firm’s total global sales. Apple’s reliance on Chinese manufacturing means the relationship goes far deeper than just local sales. The firm has 10,000 direct employees in the firm; the economy around Apple’s presence in China is responsible for around 5m jobs.
What happens next depends on the extent to which China feels its hardline stance is working – and there are indications officials are becoming wary. According to reporting in the New York Times, Beijing is concerned its actions are drawing more attention to the protests and harming the country’s standing on the global stage, adding yet more tension to relations with the US as trade talks restart in Washington.
The rows have also bolstered concerns that China has few qualms when it comes to making demands of companies both based in the Communist state, as well as those who merely want to do business there.
“What would Huawei do if they were the dominant 5G provider for a country, and that country’s leaders said the wrong thing?” speculated Elliott Zaagman, who covers Chinese business and investment,
Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC
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