Six times Apple gave in to China
Hiding the Taiwan flag emoji is just one way Apple makes changes for China
Update: Since we originally published this story, Apple reversed its stance again and removed an app that shows protests and police in Hong Kong. We've updated this story from "four times" to "six times" to reflect that app and the Taiwan flag emoji.
Apple is coming under fire again for its stance on China.
The company reversed its decision to allow HKmap.live into the iOS App Store in Hong Kong, claiming that the map breaks its policies by endangering law enforcement -- something denied by the app's developer and supporters, who say it helps ordinary people avoid trouble spots.
Since Apple's latest U-turn came after criticism from state media, it's sparked accusations that the company is capitulating to the Chinese government, which has recently become a hot topic. But if that’s the case, it won’t be the first time Apple has done it. Here are six times Apple has given in to government demands in China.
Hong Kong protest map app rejected
The saga of HKmap.live has been rolling for a while now. Apple repeatedly rejected the app for a variety of reasons at first, among them that the app "allowed users to evade law enforcement." The reasoning was odd, given that Apple allows Waze into the App Store -- a popular app that actively boasts that it can be used to avoid the police.
Apple eventually gave in and approved the app for release… and then Chinese state media weighed in.
The People's Daily published a commentary saying that the app "incites illegal behavior," accusing Apple of "damaging its reputation and hurting the feeling of consumers."
Shortly after, Apple reversed its decision again. In a statement provided to the South China Morning Post, the company said it removed the app because it "has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong."
No Taiwan flag emoji in some regions 🇹🇼
If, for some reason, you wanted to celebrate Taiwan's Double Tenth national holiday today by sending out the Taiwan flag emoji (🇹🇼) to iPhone users in mainland China… you might just cause confusion instead. That’s because Apple users in China only see an Xed-out box where the emoji should be.
Now Apple is hiding the same emoji from users in Hong Kong and Macau. The latest iOS update removes the Taiwan flag from the emoji menu in those regions, although people can still find it by typing the word Taiwan.
No sensitive words engraved on your Apple products
Apple will let you make custom engravings on your beloved iPads and AirPods, but China has some special restrictions. A number of sensitive topics will show the message “inappropriate words are not allowed” on Apple’s site for China.
Banned terms include June 4, Taiwan Independence and Falun Gong. Some names of current and past presidents of China are also banned, including Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, along with the names of dissidents like Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia. Even generic terms such as “dictatorship” and “human rights” are banned.
Some of these sensitive words are even restricted on the Chinese-language Hong Kong store.
VPN and news apps removed from the app store
China’s Great Firewall keeps China’s large internet population from accessing a large number of foreign websites and slows down traffic for sites that aren’t blocked. Anyone seeking a smoother, uncensored experience online could turn to a virtual private network (VPN)… except on iOS.
VPNs are subject to strict control from Chinese authorities: VPN service providers that aren’t approved by the government are illegal. So in August 2017, Apple publicly said it complied with requests to remove VPN apps from China’s iOS App Store ahead of the Communist Party’s National Congress.
Earlier that year, Apple also removed The New York Times from China’s iOS App Store, citing “violation of local regulations.” The New York Times said that Apple declined to comment on what local regulations the news outlet violated. But in another case where apps did violate Chinese law, Apple wiped out thousands of gambling apps because gambling is illegal in the country.
Storing Chinese iCloud data in Guizhou
To comply with China’s cybersecurity law that came into effect in 2017, Apple entrusted its iCould operations to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), which reportedly has close ties to the Chinese government.
GCBD later transferred Chinese Apple users’ iCloud data to servers run by China Telecom, one of the three state-run telecom companies in the country.
Before the transfer, the Chinese authorities would have to go through US courts to obtain iCloud data for a specific user. The move triggered widespread concern about the Chinese government's access to the personal data of Chinese Apple users. But the US tech company said that it controls the encryption keys, not its Chinese partner.
According to the company’s transparency report for mainland China in the second half of 2018, a high number of government data requests are for financial fraud investigations.
Shutting down iBooks, iTunes Movies
In 2016, Apple shut down its iBooks Store and iTunes Movies services in mainland China, just six months after they entered the market. The reason? As a result of the country’s strict content controls, China’s media censors demanded Apple shut down the services in the country, according to The New York Times.
To this day, no content is available on the two apps for Chinese users.
In most cases, Apple’s official stance when addressing media is that it’s complying with local laws. But as the removal of the Taiwan flag emoji shows, the reasoning behind Apple’s actions isn’t always transparent.