Over 100 million users of Apple gadgets in China have had trouble since the weekend accessing iTunes and App Store – the US tech behemoth’s online marketplaces for apps and value-added content – on their iPhones and iPads.
The service glitch still not explained by Apple is believed to be due to Beijing’s move to barricade connections to the backbone network of the group’s services after Apple’s perceived inaction to pull a mapping app that can reportedly track the real-time deployment of Hong Kong police as riot squads continue to face protesters in the city’s streets.
HKmap.live – the app at the center of Beijing’s ire – has been lambasted by Chinese state media as a “thugs’ app” that “helps scoundrels get away with rioting.”
It has been the most downloaded app under the travel category for Apple’s Hong Kong App Store since huge protests spurred by a now-retracted China extradition bill in June.
Many users of Apple products in China have complained about connection issues since the weekend.
Chinese news portals including NetEase reported on Tuesday that Apple’s office in China had been given a formal request to remove the “illegal” app with an unspecified deadline.
The app crowdsources the locations of specific police units and contingents, as well as protesters, as the opposing sides engage in pitched battles in Hong Kong’s narrow streets.
Apple previously delisted the app, developed by a team of anonymous tech experts, from its App Store earlier this month but reversed the decision not long after, despite receiving a deluge of complaints from users with Apple accounts registered on the mainland.
But a large number of supporters of the app also emerged almost instantly. Protesters who have spent their weekends scuffling with police over recent months hailed the app as a “life-saver” and an essential part of a demonstrator’s gear – along with helmets and goggles – to help them evade law enforcers.
HKmap.live relies on numerous users to report and track the deployment of police officers, cordons and their assets so that protesters can plan and coordinate their tactics for hit-and-run, flash mob attacks at government offices and train stations, while greatly reducing the risk of being waylaid and nabbed. The more users hooked together on the app, the more accurate the tracking and positioning.
Not available on mainland
The app is not available on the App Store for mainland China, where the content and apps are all carefully curated and examined to ensure strict conformity to Beijing’s draconian Internet laws and regulations.
The brisk business in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China is a pillar supporting Apple’s profitability. It made $9.6 billion in sales from the Greater China Region in the April-to-June period, according to the company’s bourse filings.
Hong Kong’s anti-government and anti-Beijing demonstrators are gadget-savvy and smart enough about tech to strategize their moves and stay in touch, while keeping their communications and whereabouts away from the prying eyes of the authorities.
Among the other apps that they rely to advance their course is Telegram, a cloud-based, encrypted instant messaging service, which has also been on the receiving end of hacking suspected to have originated in mainland China.