Why are Apple and Google removing apps at China's request?
Protests in Hong Kong have been ongoing since March and American companies have largely managed to tiptoe around the issue while continuing to do business in the sovereign state and with China without much scrutiny. That changed this week when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the protesters marching for freedom in Hong Kong. Since that incident, with newfound scrutiny being placed on companies that supposedly extol the values of freedom and democracy, American corporations have started to take turns stepping on rakes as they try to navigate the situation. The latest companies that have proven it impossible to thread the needle between morality and profit: Google and Apple, who in the last few days have removed apps from their respective app stores at the behest of the Chinese government.
In the case of Google, the company took action against a roleplaying game called The Revolution of Our Times that put players in the shoes of a Hong Kong protester. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google dropped the app because it violated the company's policy that prohibits apps from "capitalizing on sensitive events." Of course, the fact that Google reportedly received an order from the Hong Kong police to remove the app probably helped to expedite the whole process. The government of Hong Kong has had to fend off rumors that police and military members from mainland China have been involved in efforts to quell protests — efforts that have resulted in acts of violence that have caused more than 2,000 injuries and nearly 2,400 arrests.
While Google's decision to remove the game from the Google Play Store certainly shows the company's willingness to play ball with an authoritarian regime, Apple's app removal feels closer to a straight up betrayal of those marching for freedom in Hong Kong. Earlier this week, an app called HKmap.live appeared in the Apple App Store after the app was placed under an extensive review process and was eventually granted approval by Apple, following an initial rejection and appeal from the app developer. HKmap.live was sort of like Waze but for the protesters in Hong Kong. Users could view a crowdsourced map of the city that would highlight protester activity as well as movement from police. The app was designed to help protesters avoid violent conflicts with law enforcement, limiting the likelihood that they will be exposed to tear gas that cops have taken to liberally using against demonstrators (a behavior that is enabled by American companies that sell tear gas and other so-called riot control equipment to police in Hong Kong.) The app wasn't live in the App Store for long before Chinese media started lambasting Apple for allowing HKmap.live to exist. China Daily accused Apple of enabling violent riots and People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, called the app "poisonous." The Hong Kong Police objected, too, claiming that the app endangers law enforcement and was being used to target police — something there doesn't appear to be any evidence of. Instead of allowing the app to remain, Apple decided to reverse course and once again claim that it is in violation of company policy — even though the app was approved by Apple's own review process. HKmap.live is no longer available through the Apple App Store.
None of this should come as a surprise. While Apple and Google may nominally support the ideals that protesters in Hong Kong are marching for — to maintain their independence from the authoritarian rule of China's Communist Party — they are unwilling to sacrifice the massive cash pit that is the Chinese market. In order to preserve their profits, they have to kowtow to the wishes of an oppressive, authoritarian government — and they have done just that for years now. Apple has removed hundreds of apps from the App Store that it operates in China, including the New York Times and other seemingly harmless apps. Earlier this week, the app for online publication Quartz was pulled from the mainland China App Store. According to Apple Censorship, an online tracker that identifies when apps have been removed in certain regions, 114 news apps and 2,203 total apps have been made unavailable in China. Apple has also introduced a version of iOS 13.1 in China, Hong Kong and Macau that removes the Taiwanese flag emoji from its keyboard.
Google has a smaller presence in China because many of its apps and services are banned in the region, but it certainly isn't free of capitulating with the Chinese government. It was revealed last year by The Intercept that Google was attempting to develop a search engine that would censor specific results and information that China's government found objectionable. A version of the app that Google planned to release to the public would have restricted information about political opponents to the People's Republic of China and produced no results for search queries like "free speech," "democracy," "human rights" and "peaceful protest." The company has since allegedly abandoned the plan, in large part due to internal pushback from Google employees and bad press, but the fact remains that the company was ready to compromise the product it is best known for in order to satisfy the Chinese government.
There has been an expectation lately that American companies will stand up and issue their support for protesters in Hong Kong, who are demonstrating in an effort to enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoy. That was never going to happen. Companies like the NBA, Google and Apple all may, in theory, support freedom of expression and support the idea of democracy. But they support bolstering their own bottom line more and China is an increasingly important market for all of these companies, despite being based in the U.S. China accounted for $52 billion of Apple’s sales last year, the NBA counts on an estimated $4 billion each year from the Chinese market and Google made over $3 billion from the country in 2018, with massive growth expected in the region. Those figures are high enough that none of these companies will risk that money disappearing from their coffers. Corporations may tacitly support freedom and democracy, but this should make it clear that there's a price point where those supposed principles become flexible.