Apple’s China App Store pulls US news app that covered Hong Kong protests

Laurie Chen

An app produced by an American media company that has given extensive coverage to the protests in Hong Kong has become the latest to be removed from Apple’s App Store in mainland China, for providing “illegal content” in the country.

Zach Seward, chief executive of Quartz, which reports on the global economy, said in an interview with technology news website TheVerge.com that his company was being targeted not only because of its reports about the pro-democracy protests but also its articles on how to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass China’s strict controls on internet access.

As well as the removal of its app from the online shop, Quartz’s website – like those of many media and technology firms, including the South China Morning Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC, Google and Facebook – is blocked in mainland China.

“We abhor this kind of government censorship of the internet and have great coverage of how to get around such bans around the world,” Seward said in a statement.

The CEO of Quartz says he “abhors government censorship”. Photo: Handout

The Verge report said Quartz had been notified by Apple of the app’s removal on the grounds that it “includes content that is illegal in China”, but did not say when it happened.

Lokman Tsui, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the treatment of Quartz was in keeping with Beijing’s general lack of tolerance for foreign firms it deemed a threat to its values.

“This latest incident … fits the larger pattern of the [Communist] Party pressuring foreign companies to be obedient and loyal,” he said, pointing to the recent controversies surrounding the National Basketball Association and US video game developer Blizzard.

“Apple is perhaps under even greater scrutiny because of its global image and reputation, and because it is particularly vulnerable to such pressures from the party because it has so much invested in China,” Tsui said.

Yik Chan Chin, a media and communications professor at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, said technology firms operating in a global environment faced many new obstacles.

“It seems to me that these companies and platforms are caught in a technology cold war, and their actions are politicised in both China and the USA,” he said.

“They may need to increase the transparency and accountability of their decisions to minimise the damage to their credibility.”

HKmap.live was removed from the App Store after a protest from Beijing. Photo: AP

Another app associated with the Hong Kong protests – which began on June 9 with a rally against the city government’s plans to introduce a now-withdrawn extradition bill – has also fallen victim to Apple’s censorship.

HKmap.live and its associated website use crowdsourcing to provide logistical information about the protests in real time and have been widely used to track the movements of police and monitor disputes as they happen.

The removal of the app came after party mouthpiece People’s Daily on Tuesday accused Apple of protecting “rioters” in Hong Kong and enabling illegal behaviour. The article was published after the US tech giant reinstated HKmap.live to its store on Saturday, overruling its own earlier decision to remove it.

People’s Daily accused Apple of protecting “rioters” in Hong Kong and enabling illegal behaviour. Photo: Robert Ng

Apple, which relies on China for most of its manufacturing supply chain and is building a massive cloud data centre in the south of the country, has a history of bowing to Beijing’s demands on matters the party finds offensive.

Last month, it removed an emoji of the Taiwanese flag from the keyboards of iPhones sold in Hong Kong and Macau. China considers the democratic self-governed island a breakaway province awaiting reunification with the mainland.

China is also a major growth market for Apple as it faces slowing demand for its smartphones around the world amid fierce competition from cheaper models.

The company has in the past removed VPNs from its App Store in China as well as songs that reference the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Both Apple China and Quartz have been contacted for further comment.

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