SAN FRANCISCO — Apple removed an app late Wednesday that enabled protesters in Hong Kong to track the police, a day after facing intense criticism from Chinese state media for it, plunging the technology giant deeper into the complicated politics of a country that is fundamental to its business.
Apple said it was withdrawing the app, HKmap.live, from its App Store just days after approving it because the authorities in Hong Kong said protesters were using it to attack the police in the semiautonomous city.
A day earlier, People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial accusing Apple of aiding "rioters" in Hong Kong. "Letting poisonous software have its way is a betrayal of the Chinese people's feelings," said the article , which was written under a pseudonym that translates into "Calming the Waves."
Timothy D. Cook, Apple's chief executive, said in an email to employees on Thursday that the company had removed the app after receiving "credible information" from the authorities and people in Hong Kong "that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present." As a result, he said, the app violated Apple rules and local laws.
"National and international debates will outlive us all, and, while important, they do not govern the facts," he said in the letter, which was viewed by The New York Times. "In this case, we thoroughly reviewed them, and we believe this decision best protects our users."
With its reversal, Apple joined a growing list of corporations that are trying to navigate the fraught political situation between China and Hong Kong, where antigovernment protests have unfolded for months.
That minefield was evident this week when an executive of the N.B.A.'s Houston Rockets tweeted his support of the Hong Kong protests. The tweet prompted a backlash from the Chinese authorities, leading to apologies by the Rockets and ultimately the cancellation of broadcasts of N.B.A. exhibition games in China, one of the N.B.A.'s largest markets.
Companies ranging from Marriott to United Airlines to Versace have also backtracked on perceived slights to the Chinese government in the past, such as customer surveys that suggested Taiwan was an independent nation. All the firms are balancing the enormous economic opportunity in China, with its 1.4 billion consumers, with the negative public image of capitulating to an authoritarian government.
[Here's how Hong Kong's protests have evolved into a broader pushback against Beijing .]
No multinational company arguably has as much at stake in China as Apple, which assembles nearly all its products there and counts the country as its No. 3 market after the United States and Europe. It tallied nearly $44 billion in sales in the greater China region, which includes Taiwan and Hong Kong, in the year that ended June 30. Apple's stock price often rises or falls depending on how it is performing in China.
Mr. Cook has become a deft diplomat in China. He has traveled there frequently and attended numerous Chinese government events. In recent months, he has argued for moderation in the trade war between the United States and China. While Mr. Cook regularly speaks out on political issues in the United States like gun control and immigration, he has largely remained silent on Chinese politics, including the clashes in Hong Kong.
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In late 2017, Mr. Cook said at a conference that while he disagreed with some Chinese policies, Apple must comply with local laws.
"Each country in the world decides their laws and their regulations, and so your choice is: Do you participate? Or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be?" he said. "You get in the arena, because nothing ever changes from the sideline."
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said Apple's decision to remove the Hong Kong app would embolden the Chinese Communist Party.
"I think the party concludes from this that intimidation, harassment and pressure work for most people, in most places," she said.
A Twitter account that claimed to be run by the developer of HKmap.live said in a message on Wednesday that Apple's reasoning for the app's removal — that protesters were using it to attack the police — was false.
"That is ridiculous," said the person running the account, who declined to provide a name. The person shared a message that Apple sent explaining the removal . In the notice, the company cited App Store policies that apps must comply with local laws and must not "solicit, promote or encourage criminal activity or clearly reckless behavior." The note was signed: "App Store Review."
Supporters of the app have argued that it helps Hong Kong residents avoid clashes between the police and protesters. The app "is used by passer-by, protesters, journalist, tourist and even pro-government supporters," the HKmap.live Twitter account later tweeted, calling the removal "clearly a political decision to suppress freedom and human right."
The Twitter account said Google had not removed the app from the marketplace for Android devices. The account said the iPhone app had been downloaded more than 100,000 times and the Android app more than 50,000 times.
The app shows a map of Hong Kong with updates from users on the location of the police, their water cannons and safe zones, among other things. Apple initially rejected the app for enabling people to evade the police, the app's Twitter account said last week. Several days later, the account tweeted that Apple had reversed course. It soon became the top free app in Hong Kong, according to the app-data firm Sensor Tower, and criticism from mainland China began.
After the People's Daily editorial, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that "anyone with a conscience and a sense of justice" should boycott the app.
Charles Mok, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, said on Thursday that he had sent a letter to Mr. Cook saying HKmap.live helped people avoid the protests.
"We Hong Kongers will definitely look closely at whether Apple chooses to uphold its commitment to free expression and other basic human rights, or become an accomplice for Chinese censorship and oppression," he wrote.
In the United States, Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, tweeted that Apple had told him that its initial rejection of the app was a mistake. "Looks like the Chinese censors have had a word with them since," he said. "Who is really running Apple? Tim Cook or Beijing?"
Apple has made other moves that appeared to appease the Chinese government. It recently removed the Taiwanese flag emoji from iPhone keyboards in certain areas, including Hong Kong.
On Sept. 30, Apple pulled the app of the news organization Quartz from the App Store in China, Quartz said. The news organization, which has covered the Hong Kong protests, said Apple had sent it a vague notice about removing its app "because it includes content that is illegal in China."
Zach Seward, Quartz's chief executive , said in a statement, "We abhor this kind of government censorship of the internet, and have great coverage of how to get around such bans around the world," and included a link to its articles about software designed to dodge censorship.
Apple declined to comment on the Quartz app on Wednesday and did not respond to a request regarding the Taiwanese flag emoji.
Apple has long prided itself on how every app in its App Store is approved by one of its employees, unlike Google's largely automated approach for Android apps. Apps that pose tricky policy questions are deliberated during weekly meetings of senior executives, led by Phil Schiller, an executive who heads the App Store. That group decided to remove the HKmap.live app, said a person familiar with the decision who declined to be named because the process was confidential.
Separately, Google this week removed a mobile game, The Revolution of Our Times I, which allowed users to play as Hong Kong protesters. Google said it had pulled the app from the Android app store worldwide because it violated its policy that bars "developers from capitalizing on sensitive events."
The developer, who declined to be named, said in an email that he or she donated 80 percent of the app's revenues to a group supporting the Hong Kong protests.
A Google spokesman said the company had decided to remove it during regular reviews of Android apps. He said Google hadn't heard from the Chinese government or the Hong Kong police about it.
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