iPhone users in Hong Kong have noticed a change in the latest version of iOS: the 🇹🇼 Flag for Taiwan emoji is missing.
The change, first discovered by iOS Developer Hiraku Wang, means that users with an iOS device region set to Hong Kong will see one less flag on the emoji keyboard than if the region is set to anywhere else in the world (other than China mainland, which also hides this flag).
Notably, the emoji 🇹🇼 Flag: Taiwan is still supported by iOS in Hong Kong. As of iOS 13.1.2, released last week, this is now hidden from the emoji keyboard but remains available by other means.
Apple's Hong Kong approach differs from the complete ban on the emoji in China.
Any iPhone purchased in China, or purchased elsewhere with the region set to China mainland, replaces the flag of Taiwan with a missing character tofu (☒) so it cannot be used or displayed in any app, even via copy and paste.
In Hong Kong, this emoji still appears when present in a document or message, and can be inserted via copy and paste with no change to the display. It also remains an auto-suggest option when typing the phrase Taiwan.
As for the most obvious place to find it - the emoji keyboard - that's where this emoji has gone missing.
This new restriction applies to all iPhones purchased in Hong Kong, as well as international iPhones where the region is set to Hong Kong.
Emojipedia can confirm that this change also affects the built-in emoji picker in macOS 10.15 Catalina. As with iOS, macOS completely bans the Taiwan Flag emoji when the region is set to China, but only hides it from the emoji picker in Hong Kong.
Previous releases of macOS had no restriction on this flag for Hong Kong users.
Note: While Taiwan is officially named Republic of China (ROC), the name Taiwan is more common internationally, and reflected in the current name of this emoji as: 🇹🇼 Flag: Taiwan (previously 'Flag for Taiwan').
For simplicity, this article refers to Republic of China (ROC) as Taiwan; and People's Republic of China (PRC) as China (or China mainland as used in iOS region settings).
As with any Unicode character, vendors like Apple are free to hide or show any emoji on their platforms as they wish.
If a vendor chooses not to support an emoji, they can simply remove it from any emoji font they create, or an alternative is to support the emoji but hide it from obvious input.
Microsoft hides the middle finger emoji from the emoji picker on Windows, but still supports the emoji if you copy and paste it, or open a document including it. Apple supports code points for many gender-neutral emojis, but hides them from input on the emoji keyboard, as most of these duplicate the appearance of the woman or man variation on iOS.
Hiding an emoji from the emoji keyboard is somewhat of a half-way step between completely banning an emoji, and fully supporting it.
While all flags have potential to unite or divide, until recently the emoji keyboard has remained relatively separate from such matters.
In recent years China has stepped up efforts in pressuring global companies in how they refer to Taiwan. Apple isn't alone here.
PayPal shows a generic globe instead of the Taiwan flag in its region picker. No other country gets that treatment.
Airlines have been instructed to refer to Taiwan as "Taiwan China" if they wish to keep doing business in China. Some airlines thought they might get around this by listed cities only without reference to the country, but this wasn't deemed sufficient by China.
With protests ongoing in Hong Kong to uphold the freedoms granted under "one country, two systems", the gradual re-aligning of Hong Kong and China continues.
And so the next battle appears to be on the emoji keyboard.
We all have choices to make in this world, both as individuals, and individuals within larger companies.
What's difficult when it comes to global politics and a superpower like China is that the choices don't look great - no matter which way you look at them. While Apple has not made comment on this change, it seems entirely consistent that a decision such as this wouldn't have been made lightly.
Is this half-way step of hiding, but not removing, the flag of Taiwan in Hong Kong a compromise that is better than banning the emoji altogether? I'd say so.
What this means for the future of Hong Kong as a distinct region of China with its own laws is less certain, and a topic much larger than the emoji keyboard. Perhaps Microsoft was onto something when they decided not to support any country flags in Windows.
Using the emoji 🇹🇼 Flag: Taiwan remains possible on Hong Kong-model iPhones via the following methods: