‘Poisonous Software:’ China State Media Issues Warning to Apple After Hong Kong App Approval

October 9, 2019, 8:54 AM UTC
Hong Kong Marks China's National Day
HONG KONG, CHINA - OCTOBER 01: A pro-democracy protester blocks a road outside the Apple store during clashes with police on October 01, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in Hong Kong through demonstrations as the city remains on the edge with the anti-government movement entering its fourth month. Protesters in Hong Kong continue its call for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to meet their remaining demands since the controversial extradition bill has been withdrawn, which includes an independent inquiry into police brutality, the retraction of the word “riot” to describe the rallies, and genuine universal suffrage, as the territory faces a leadership crisis. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath—Getty Images

As protests in Hong Kong continue, Beijing’s stance against Western companies becoming involved in the crisis—intentionally or otherwise—has grown increasingly assertive.

On Tuesday, a commentary in state-run newspaper People’s Daily blasted Apple for approving the launch of an app that allows the tracking of protesters and police in Hong Kong, condemning the app as “poisonous software.”

“By allowing its platform to clear the way for an app that incites illegal behaviour, [does Apple] not worry about damaging its reputation and hurting the feelings of consumers?” read the commentary, published on the People’s Daily news app under the pen-name Bolan Ping. The pseudonym means “calming the waves” and emerged only recently, tagged to content about the unrest in Hong Kong.

“This kind of foolishness and recklessness will cause much trouble for Apple, and Apple needs to think deeply,” the commentary continued. Apple, which earned $52 billion from the Greater China region last year, didn’t respond to request for comment.

What’s the mapper?

The app in question, HKmap.live, is a map that crowdsources information on the whereabouts of police and protesters. Users drop pins on a map of Hong Kong—which is already populated with the locations of every major police station in the territory—to flag sightings of police cars, police units, or protesters. Users can also issue travel warnings if, for example, a road becomes blocked or tear gas is deployed.

After being approved for the App Store last week, the app quickly rose to the top of the download charts in Hong Kong under the App Store’s “travel” section. Fans of the app argue it allows users to avoid wandering into an area of unrest or unwittingly joining an unlawful assembly.

A browser version of the map was in use much of the summer and an Android version exists too. Apple, which had previously rejected the app’s bid to launch an iOS version, offered no explanation for why it has now decided to approve the app.

In a rejection letter purportedly from Apple, which HKmap.live shared on Twitter last week, the tech giant explained that the app “contains content—or facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity—that is not legal” and was rejected because “specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.”

The illegality issue is likely a reference to the app’s ability to help protesters evade police. The map’s Chinese name, as posted on its Twitter account, translates more literally to “Hong Kong resistance map live” and the location of police is denoted by the dog face emoji, in reference to the derogatory term protesters call officers.

Stand with China?

Apple is just the latest corporation caught up in the furor over protests in Hong Kong.

On Tuesday, luxury jeweler Tiffany’s deleted an online advertisement in which a Chinese model covers her right eye because Internet users noticed it resembles a pose popular among protesters, which pays tribute to a nurse who was stuck in the eye by a beanbag round. Tiffany’s says the campaign was shot in May, before the protests began, and was not meant to be political.

Meanwhile the NBA continues to suffer backlash from Beijing following a tweet sent out by Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey last week. In the tweet, which was swiftly deleted, Morey echoed a slogan popular among Hong Kong protesters, writing “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

Like Apple, the NBA was accused by Beijing of hurting Chinese people’s feelings. That’s a claim Beijing commonly employs to express its own displeasure and is a warning to companies not to cross a politically-sensitive line.

The NBA’s Chinese sponsors have since cut ties with the association and Tencent, which has broadcast rights to the NBA’s games in China, has said it will no longer broadcast the contests.

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