In a recent update to iOS 13.1, Apple’s iPhone operating system, Apple reportedly removed the Taiwanese flag emoji from its keyboard for users in Hong Kong and Macau, China’s two special administrative regions.
Apple makes no mention of the change in its release notes for iOS 13.1.1. The company did not immediately reply to Quartz’s inquiry about whether the Chinese government requested censorship of the Taiwanese flag. Taiwan is an independently run democracy, but China considers it part of its territory.
However, against the backdrop of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, the move exemplifies continued corporate subservience to the Chinese government. Apple has blocked the Taiwanese flag emoji in mainland China since 2017. For a time, the code for mainland censorship caused some iPhones to crash whenever the devices tried to display the Taiwanese flag. (Apple fixed that bug in July 2018.)
Apple is hardly the only company to bend to Beijing. Despite employee protests, Google has apparently continued work on Dragonfly, a censored, Chinese-tailored version of its search engine. Meanwhile, Microsoft censors itself for China on LinkedIn and Bing, Wired has reported. In August, Quartz reported on ByteDance (parent company of video-sharing app TikTok) which seemingly censors the Hong Kong protests from its platform.
Practically across the board, money outweighs politics. Companies prioritize access to the massive Chinese market over democratic concerns. Apple itself has kowtowed to Chinese requests before.
Most recently, the National Basketball Association (NBA) encountered a firestorm this week after Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s protestors. As Chinese companies pulled sponsorships and Tencent Sports suspended its broadcasts of Rockets games, the league quickly issued an apology to China.
The Taiwan flag is still accessible through predictive features on the English keyboard (typing “Taiwan” and selecting the flag emoji), and for users who have their phone’s region set to anywhere other than mainland China, Macau, or Hong Kong. But ultimately, the emoji’s absence from the Apple library in China and its special administrative regions symbolizes how the Communist Party projects its ideology, even through non-Chinese companies.