Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 19 April 2024


Exclusive | China Orders Apple to Remove Popular Messaging Apps

WhatsApp and Threads as well as messaging platforms Signal and Telegram were taken off the Chinese App Store Friday. Apple said it was told to remove certain apps because of national security concerns, without specifying which.

“We are obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree,” an Apple spokesperson said.


These messaging apps, which allow users to exchange messages and share files individually and in large groups, combined have around three billion users globally. They can only be accessed in China through virtual private networks that take users outside China’s Great Firewall, but are still commonly used.

Beijing has often viewed such platforms with caution, concerned that these apps could be used by its citizens to spread negative content and cause social unrest. Much of the news China censors at home often makes it beyond the Great Firewall through such channels. 

The Cyberspace Administration of China asked Apple to remove WhatsApp and Threads from the App Store because both contain political content that includes problematic mentions of the Chinese president, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Apple spokesperson said that wasn’t part of the reasoning.

The move shrinks the number of foreign chat apps Chinese internet users can use to communicate with those outside of the country, a further tightening of internet controls by Beijing, which is sensitive to uncensored information circulating.


Tech tensions between the U.S. and China are already running high. Congress is fast-tracking a bipartisan effort to crack down on TikTok that could lead to passage of a law this month forcing its Chinese parent to sell the popular video-sharing app in the U.S. or face a ban.

Collectively, Instagram, X, Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp have been downloaded from Apple’s app store more than 170 million times in China over the past decade, according to estimates by market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. Apps such as X were key to disseminating information and videos of protests against Covid rules in China that erupted in late 2022. 

The Justice Department is claiming that Apple is an illegal monopoly, hanging its case on a century-old law called the Sherman Act. WSJ breaks down the DOJ’s legal argument, and how Apple might fight back.

Apple faces having to remove more of these foreign and domestic apps in China, following an edict from the government last year requiring mobile app developers to register their apps with regulators by this March. Unregistered apps would be taken down from app stores, Beijing said, saying it was targeting apps deemed unsafe, such as those involved in telephone scams.

Apple staff met with Chinese authorities and expressed concern over how the rules would be implemented and affect its users, The Wall Street Journal reported. Then, officials told Apple that it had to strictly implement the rules.

The removals follow a string of moves Apple has made in its largest overseas market to comply with China’s increasing censorship and tightening rules on data security. It was China’s top smartphone maker last year, with more than 17% of the market, according to industry researcher International Data Corporation. 


Apple remains reliant on China to make most of its products, but in recent years has been moving some production to countries such as Vietnam. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook visited Vietnam this week as part of a Southeast Asia tour, as the tech giant seeks to diversify its supply chains and boost demand from new markets.

Beijing has intensified crackdowns on its internet space, cranking up censorship and data controls and requiring platform operators to manage online activities. In 2017, Apple came under fire for removing dozens of apps enabling Chinese internet users to circumvent the Great Firewall from the country’s app store. It also took down thousands of videogame apps in 2020 after Chinese officials cracked down on gaming software without a government license.

Chat messaging platforms have been a thorn in the side for Chinese authorities because they provide a channel for users to organize social movements, said Eric Liu, an analyst with China Digital Times, a website tracking Chinese censorship. These apps have shared news about China the government doesn’t like, such as about a protester on a bridge in Beijing in 2022 who was demonstrating against the country’s anti-COVID lockdowns, which first appeared on Telegram.

Apple’s takedowns further decouple the iPhone ecosystem there from the West. Global apps such as Reddit, Spotify and ChatGPT aren’t available on China’s app store, along with more than 14,000 apps that are blocked in China, according to, a website run by anticensorship activist organization GreatFire, which has been monitoring such censorship for more than a decade. Some of these are internet circumvention tools, messaging apps or apps that are linked to the LGBT community, according to GreatFire.


The demands of China’s censors illustrate the growing cost to Apple of access to one of the biggest consumer markets in the world. 

China is its most important international sales market and largest manufacturing base globally. Even so, the iPhone maker is already facing headwinds there. Weak consumption spending has weighed on sales, while competition with homegrown rivals has intensified. Beijing has also limited the use of iPhones by state employees. 

On Thursday, Huawei began sales of a new high-end smartphone lineup, Pura 70, which industry analysts expect would further eat away iPhones’ market share in China. Counterpoint Research forecasts Huawei’s smartphone sales in China to grow 39% this year.

The new broader rules regulating apps affect both foreign and domestic app distributors and don’t specifically target Apple. Still, the overall services segment, which includes app-store transactions, is key to Apple’s profitability and any disruption to the Chinese app store could eat into profit there.

Meta has sought to re-expand its exposure to China’s large consumer market after Facebook was blocked in 2009, when China cracked down on its internet following antigovernment unrest. But its efforts haven’t made much progress. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg also has in recent times publicly criticized China and TikTok, bolstering negative views of the entrepreneur in Beijing.

Meta still makes money from China by selling ads on its platforms to Chinese companies. It has also explored a partnership with Chinese social-media and videogame company Tencent to sell its virtual-reality headset in the country. 

Write to Aaron Tilley at, Liza Lin at and Jeff Horwitz at

Corrections & Amplifications
Line was already unavailable on Apple’s China App Store before Friday. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it was among the apps removed on Friday. (Corrected on April 19)


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Appeared in the April 19, 2024, print edition as 'China Orders Apple To Remove Meta Apps'.


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