It’s easy to sum up one of today’s most pressing geopolitical issues: American companies must choose whether to apply American standards to their foreign operations, or follow foreign standards — no matter how inapposite they be to U.S. employees and customers — when doing business outside U.S. borders.
Thanks to its dealings in China, Apple doesn’t have a great track record on this topic. For years, it has generated record profits by leveraging China’s low wages and terrible working conditions to inexpensively assemble most of its devices, a strategy it has portrayed as both practically necessary and progressively improving over time. More recently, it has bent over backwards to appease Chinese government demands for access to iCloud customer data, and banned multiple apps based on Chinese allegations that they could be used for questionable activities, such as facilitating gambling or pornography.
As morally questionable as Apple’s past decisions were, the underlying message is obvious. Apple has consciously decided to take advantage of China’s poor worker protections and potentially gigantic customer base in exchange for compromising its supposedly high international standards of user freedom and privacy. Given the choice between doing whatever the authoritarian Chinese government asks or taking a principled stand against it, Apple bows, virtually every time.
Until now, Apple’s decision to play ball with China’s government hasn’t made the difference between life and death, except in the abstract. Chinese workers have died from suicides and factory injuries that wouldn’t have happened in U.S. facilities, but these people knew what they signed up for — right? And if a Chinese citizen had something questionable in his iCloud data or sent pornographic content over a messaging app, he shouldn’t be surprised if the authorities might want to interrogate or punish him, would he?
Many people, including Apple customers outside and inside China, have decried these situations as abhorrent. But on a corporate level, Apple is apparently unconcerned about either the negative press or the human costs of these decisions, because the strategy makes money — lots of it.
Now Apple is continuing on that slippery slope by flip-flopping on an app called HKmap.live, which can best be understood as a version of Waze built for an authoritarian society. Just as Waze has helped drivers anticipate roadside police activity and accidents in real time for over a decade, HKmap aggregates information on police vehicles, closures, and protests in progress, enabling Hong Kong residents to steer clear of both riots and riot police. Apple’s App Store team unilaterally banned the app on October 2, temporarily reversed its decision on October 3 after public outcry, then capitulated to Chinese government pressure by reinstating the ban last night.
I’m not going to pretend that HKmap is exactly the same as Waze, or that there’s not an argument to be made for yanking it from Apple’s App Stores in China. Waze was built to steer drivers away from traffic jams, and HKmap exists primarily to keep pedestrians — including protestors — from confronting armed police. After internally reviewing the app for initial release, Apple told the developer it had banned the app because it “facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity that is not legal,” specifically allowing “users to evade law enforcement.” If you see Waze in a similar light, you might accept that argument as valid, and since China’s government has issues with plenty of websites and apps, you mightn’t even be surprised by HKMap’s ban.
But HKmap is doing more social good than just helping drivers avoid highway speed traps. Protestors in semi-autonomous Hong Kong have spent months trying to stop China’s government from further undermining their civil liberties. Emboldened by Chinese officials, Hong Kong police have brutalized citizens of all ages during the protests, deliberately causing injuries and indirectly provoking deaths. As Boing Boing put it, the police have continued to:
attack families, elderly people, bystanders, and the main body of protesters, with no mercy or quarter — including the on-camera, point-blank shooting of an unarmed, nonviolent protester. In this context, Hkmap isn’t just a way for protesters to evade police, it’s a survival lifeline for innocent people facing an occupying army of sadistic armed thugs.
Apple can say whatever it wants about needing to follow the laws of the countries where it does business. And it can publicly wring its hands over tough decisions and suggest, as CEO Tim Cook did back in 2017, that it “would obviously rather not remove” apps singled out by China’s government. But when you look at the timeline here, Apple appears to have preemptively blocked the app ahead of a Chinese government request, then changed its mind, then reinstated the ban when the government came knocking. The only real question is why it temporarily changed its mind.
If there’s a fine line between following Chinese laws and acting as an agent to further the imposition of those laws on an already fragile citizenry, Apple has stepped over it here. And once it helps make its users more vulnerable to overreaches of governmental authority, it becomes partially responsible for the consequences, whether that’s an abstract loss of freedoms, or concrete physical injuries that might otherwise have been avoided by walking in the other direction from a riot. Regardless of how it may shirk responsibility, Apple will have the blood of Hong Kong residents on its hands if it continues to assist China’s government in this manner.
Back in January, Cook said that in the future, people will remember Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind as its work in the health space. But at this point, Apple seems much more concerned about the health of its Chinese manufacturing and retailing initiatives than the well-being of its users. For the sake of the real people who depend upon its products every day, I hope that it turns this around, and quickly.