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Lawmakers lash out at Apple for censoring a song about Tiananmen Square protests

Lawmakers lash out at Apple for censoring a song about Tiananmen Square protests


Apple missed a chance to ‘be a stronger voice for freedom around the globe’

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Members of Congress are criticizing Apple for censoring its music to comply with the Chinese government. Apple Music’s China service recently removed several Hong Kong singers from its platform, as reported by the Hong Kong Free Press.

“It’s disgraceful to see one of America’s most innovative, influential tech companies support the Communist Chinese government’s aggressive censorship efforts within China as we near the Tiananmen Square Massacre’s 30th anniversary,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tells The Verge.

“How did our land become a sea of blood?”

Rubio describes the Chinese government as a regime that had “constructed a totalitarian state through truly Orwellian levels of mass surveillance, thought censorship, and human rights abuses.” He points to how Apple had turned “a blind eye to [its] complicity” in exchange for market access.

Two of the censored singers, Denise Ho and Anthony Wong, are pro-democracy activists. The other singer, Jacky Cheung, released a song written by James Wong, who had confirmed that the lyrics referred to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Cheung’s song “The Path of Man” contained the lyrics, “The youth are angry, heaven and earth are weeping / How did our land become a sea of blood? / How did the path home become a path of no return?” The lyrics are a direct reference to the bloodshed that took place on June 4th, 1989. Internet users noticed over the weekend that Cheung’s song had been taken down from Apple Music’s China service.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) admonished Apple on Wednesday for not taking the chance to “be a stronger voice for freedom around the globe.” She also retweeted comments from an executive director at a human rights group that remembers the victims of communist regimes. “Just the latest example of an American tech company choosing to be complicit in the Chinese Communist Party’s high-tech totalitarian state,” the tweet reads. When asked for comment, Rodgers’ office referred The Verge to the tweet.

“This news is extremely troubling. When reports like this surface we need to ask serious questions to ensure human rights are being protected, and if these reports are true, Apple owes the public an explanation,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) said in a statement.

“American citizens value the First Amendment and the ability to speak freely – even on controversial topics,” Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) told The Verge today, “It’s deeply concerning that Apple, according to recent reports, would acquiesce to demands made by Chinese officials to censor pro-democracy music. We should expect better from these companies, and Apple should address these claims.”

Every year, around June 4th, the Chinese government begins to censor mentions of the protests. But this time, Apple joined in, especially on its music platform. Apple has previously censored the Taiwanese flag emoji to appease China, which maintains that Taiwan is a part of China. The censorship even inadvertently created a bug that crashed users’ phones when they received texts containing the Taiwanese flag emoji. Apple has also removed VPN apps from its App Store, which are services that would have helped users hop over the Chinese firewall.

Music has proven more challenging and more unevenly enforced. All of Anthony Wong’s songs were removed except one innocently titled “Do You Still Love Me?” All of Jacky Cheung’s songs remain except the offending one. And Denise Ho, an outspoken activist whose music is regularly purged from Chinese streaming services and is banned from opening social media accounts in China, has been completely delisted from Apple Music in China. The Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and US versions of Apple Music still offer the songs.

As Apple expands its retail operations in China, it has grown increasingly aligned with the country’s national government. The company moved the data of its Chinese users to a local firm in southern China last year, the Guizhou-Cloud Big Data company (GCBD), which has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Apple’s lawyers also added a clause in the Chinese terms of service giving GCBD and Apple access to all user data. The move troubled human rights watchdogs at the time, with some calling Apple a “sell-out.”

Makena Kelly contributed to this report.

Update April 12, 1:40PM ET: This article has been updated with a statement from Rep. Bob Latta.