Apple pulls WhatsApp, Threads and Signal from app store in China


Apple has removed several widely used communications platforms from its app store in China at the Chinese government’s demand, amid anger in Beijing over efforts in Washington that could result in a TikTok ban in the United States.

The move against popular U.S. messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Threads, comes days after Congress resurrected a bill to force the popular video app to be banned or sold in the United States — timing that suggests the action may be in retaliation against Washington. On both sides, authorities assert that any benefits the apps bring consumers are outweighed by considerations of national security.

The iPhone maker confirmed Friday that the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet regulator, ordered the removal of the apps citing national security concerns. Although Apple didn’t specify which apps it removed, analytics company Appfigures said WhatsApp, Threads, Signal and Telegram are no longer in the app store. Meta, which owns WhatsApp and Threads, referred a request for comment to Apple.

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

The incident comes as the U.S. government attempts to reduce the use of China-made technologies in the United States, citing security reasons — efforts that may provoke financial costs to U.S. companies, as Beijing launches tit-for-tat crackdowns. With four times as many consumers as the United States, China is one of the largest sources of revenue for many U.S. tech companies, including Apple.

The Chinese embassy declined to say whether the WhatsApp removal order was retaliation for U.S. policy or was prompted by something else. Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said in a statement that while foreign investors were welcome, they must abide by China’s laws and regulations to maintain an “orderly” internet.

Industry analysts said the move appeared to be a shot across the bow from Beijing, even as many in China would still find ways to use the apps. China’s government firewall already blocks access to WhatsApp, but many people are able to circumvent the block through virtual private networks, or VPNs. Now, the apps won’t be available for new downloads for users with China-registered iPhones.

“Removal of WhatsApp from the App Store is mostly symbolic, since WhatsApp is already banned in China,” said Dan Wang, a visiting scholar at the Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. “Beijing’s playbook since Trump’s trade war is to offer an in-kind reply to every American provocation, and it might well do more if the U.S. moves ahead with a TikTok ban.”

U.S. messaging apps like WhatsApp have long been in the crosshairs of China’s web regulators. The apps are widely used in China by political dissidents to circulate criticisms of the Chinese government and to organize protests — the kinds of messages that would be censored if sent on Chinese messaging apps like WeChat. Chinese officials have long asserted that this dissent is not 100 percent grass roots, but also fanned by foreign governments with the aim of weakening China’s government, a claim that is hard to prove or disprove.

Chinese consumers are limited by tight regulations concerning political expression, preventing opposition to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Signal and WhatsApp both feature end-to-end encryption, which prevents communications companies or government censors from reading messages unless they have access to the user’s device.

It appears that residents of China who had already downloaded WhatsApp and have a VPN can continue using that setup, said Paul Triolo, technology policy lead at Washington-based consulting firm Albright Stonebridge Group. Many Chinese professionals use WhatsApp to help conduct business outside China, Triolo said.

“Beijing has sporadically targeted VPN use in China but has not clamped down completely on VPN use, which would be a much more serious issue for Chinese users than an app store removal,” he said.

China has unusual leverage over Apple’s decisions because it is a major market for Apple products, and the company also relies on manufacturing on the mainland. In Apple’s 2023 annual report, the Greater China region accounted for 19 percent of the company’s global net sales, vs. 42 percent from the Americas and 25 percent from Europe. In a bid to lessen its manufacturing dependence on China, Apple has been expanding production elsewhere, including Vietnam and India.

There has been growing momentum in recent months in Washington to ban TikTok, with the House voting to approve legislation that would impose a ban if TikTok cannot find new ownership on short notice, and President Biden saying he would sign it into law if it came to his desk.

The Cyberspace Administration of China did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.

Joseph Menn and Lyric Li contributed to this report.

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