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Apple pulls police-tracking app used by Hong Kong protesters but developer says there’s no evidence

Apple pulls police-tracking app used by Hong Kong protesters but developer says there’s no evidence
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HONG KONG — Apple removed a mapping app that allowed users to track the whereabouts of police in protest-wracked Hong Kong after Chinese state media accused the U.S. tech giant of enabling unrest in the city by permitting downloads of the “poisonous” app.

In a statement late Wednesday, Apple said it took down HKmap.live because it had learned from Hong Kong authorities that the app had been used to “target and ambush police” and threaten public safety, adding that the program violated its rules.

It was Apple’s second reversal on HKmap.live, which it initially rejected and then allowed to appear on its App Store. The latest about-face came after the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, said in a blog post this week that the app had “betrayed the feelings of the Chinese people.” The article accused the app’s anonymous developer of harbouring malicious motives and queried whether Apple was an accomplice of “rioters.”

Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed authorities have intensified a crackdown on demonstrators, who have taken to the streets to push for democracy and to oppose Beijing’s tightening grip on the semiautonomous financial hub. The unrest has become increasingly violent in recent weeks, posing the most direct challenge to the rule of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Apple’s backdown comes as U.S. businesses find themselves under pressure from China’s government over actions or statements perceived as contrary to the narrative of the ruling Communist Party. The pressure is particularly acute when it involves sensitive political issues such as Hong Kong.

In recent days, the NBA found itself the target of a furious nationalist backlash from Beijing after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protesters. Blizzard Entertainment, meanwhile, suspended a professional gamer for a year for reportedly shouting “Liberate Hong Kong!” during an interview. Chinese tech giant Tencent owns a 5 percent stake in Blizzard’s parent company, Activision Blizzard.

Riot police patrol near the police station in Tsim Sha Tsui district, in Hong Kong, China October 10, 2019. Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

The tension has highlighted some U.S. firms’ dependence on China while raising questions about their willingness to compromise on values such as freedom of expression to continue doing business in the country, where authorities tolerate no criticism of the ruling party. The experience has also shown the Chinese government’s preparedness to punish foreign companies that don’t toe its line.

In Hong Kong, other U.S. companies have found themselves on the opposite side of the coin. Starbucks outlets have been targeted by pro-democracy demonstrators because the Seattle-based chain’s local franchisee, Maxim’s, is seen as backing the Chinese government’s stance against the protests.

Hong Kong police didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment on Thursday about their purported role in the HKmap.live app’s removal.

In a statement on Twitter on Thursday, the app’s developer said there was zero evidence that it had been used to target police or threaten public safety. It stressed that moderators deleted comments that encouraged criminal activity.

Apple’s move, it said, was “clearly a political decision” designed to suppress freedom and human rights in Hong Kong.

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