Apple Removes WhatsApp In China

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Apple Inc. made a significant announcement on Friday, 4/19/2024, revealing the removal of popular apps WhatsApp and Threads from the App Store in China. This action was not voluntary but a result of a Chinese government order, citing national security concerns. The removal of these apps, along with foreign apps Signal and Telegram, which have also disappeared from the China App Store, according to app tracking firms Qimai and AppMagic, is a clear indication of China’s ongoing efforts to censor messaging that falls outside of its control. This move also underscores the challenges Apple faces in navigating such censorship to thrive in its second-biggest market. It’s worth noting that the apps are still available in China’s two special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macau.

The government’s order to remove apps from Apple’s China App Store is not an isolated incident. The Cyberspace Administration of China (China’s internet regulator) regularly blocks access to apps using the ‘Great Firewall,’ also known as the Golden Shield Project. This system of regulatory controls that China uses to monitor, filter, and block content for users within the country has been in place for some time.  Typically, the only way around the local regulations is to use proxy tools like a virtual private network. However, most VPN apps were also removed from the App Store in China in 2017, providing even less leeway for western companies. The recent removals in the Chinese App Store may be due to a new rule China imposed last August that requires all apps to register with the government. Unregistered apps face removal, and the deadline to complete registrations expired last month. The regulations went into effect April 1, 2024.

As tensions escalate between Washington and Beijing, the timing of the app ban raises eyebrows in the information technology sector. This same week, the US government introduced legislation that could ban TikTok nationwide if its China-based owner, ByteDance does not sell its shares. Interestingly, TikTok has never existed in mainland China. Instead, its sister app, Douyin, is the dominant service among Chinese users. While not officially Chinese, TikTok’s owners are legally compelled by the Chinese authorities to establish an in-house Communist Party committee, and the US fears ByteDance may share user information with the Chinese government. The TikTok divestiture legislation has widespread support in both the US House of Representatives and the Senate. President Biden said he will sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk.

Other Meta apps, including Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger, remain available for download, although use is blocked by the firewall. Apple’s statement came shortly after China’s action. “We are obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree.” Apple CEO Tim Cook announced this week that the company will explore manufacturing in Indonesia and different countries, further distancing its supply chain away from China. iPhone sales fell sharply in China this year threatening its largest consumer market behind the US. While China is still the primary production base of the iPhone, some models are made in Vietnam, India, and Taiwan. The removal of WhatsApp and Threads certainly isn’t Apple’s biggest headache. The company has been facing patent infringements banning sales of the Apple Watch.  At the end of March 2024, the iPhone maker found itself in more trouble domestically, facing an anti-trust lawsuit from the US government.

Photo by Bangyu Wang on Unsplash

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