When Apple released iOS 13.1.1 in late September, it appears to have dropped the Taiwan flag from the emoji keyboard for users that have their iOS region set to Hong Kong or Macau, as noticed by the blog Hiraku and later corroborated by Hong Kong Free Press.
The Taiwan flag emoji isn’t completely gone — apparently, it will still display in apps and on websites, and you can even still “type” it by either typing “Taiwan” in English and selecting it from Apple’s next-word predictions or by copying and pasting it.
Regardless, the removal is being treated by activists and pro-Hong Kong supporters as another attempt from mainland China to establish sovereignty over areas it considers under its control. Because of Taiwan’s political status, the People’s Republic of China considers any mention of or allusion to its independence as an offense against its sovereignty.
Apple’s region lock of ROC Taiwan flag extended beyond CN devices to HK and Macau’s in the iOS/iPadOS 13.1.1 rollout. Interestingly, the new lock only affects the keyboard, and has no problem displaying and is easy to bypass by switching region. https://t.co/RVRKNQyc1l pic.twitter.com/8eQXambiAQ— 王博源 Wang Boyuan (@thisboyuan) October 3, 2019
The change comes in the midst of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, which have been ongoing for months and only continue to intensify as the Chinese government has taken measures to crackdown on the movement. The heightened tensions have had all sorts of ripple effects on American businesses, too, as companies fearful of being shown the door by one of the world’s most economically influential countries are bowing to pressure from China to stay away from politically sensitive topics.
The NBA this past weekend formally apologized to China for a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that voiced support for Hong Kong; China is the NBA’s biggest foreign market. And video game company Activision Blizzard removed a recording of a professional Hearthstone player calling for Hong Kong’s liberation in a post-game interview. There’s a long history of other companies, from the Gap to Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler, issuing public apologies to avoid running afoul of China’s strict speech policies and its stance on hot-button topics like Hong Kong’s independence and political turmoil in Taiwan and Tibet.
Apple has a history of appeasing China as well, considering how large a market China is and the iPhone maker’s manufacturing supply chain in the country. Earlier this year, Apple censored a number of Hong Kong singers on the China version of Apple Music, and the company has in the past removed VPN apps from the Chinese version of the App Store. It has even hidden this emoji before, too — since 2017, iPhone users in mainland China have been unable to see or type the Taiwan flag on their devices at all, according to Emojipedia.