Apple says it was ordered to pull WhatsApp, Threads from China app store

SAN FRANCISCO – Apple said it pulled the Meta-owned apps WhatsApp and Threads from its app store in China on April 19 on government orders, potentially escalating the war over technology between the United States and China.

The iPhone maker said that China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration, ordered the removal of WhatsApp and Threads from its app store because of national security concerns.

Apple said that it complied because “we are obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree”.

A Meta spokesperson directed requests for comment to Apple.

The Wall Street Journal earlier reported Apple’s removal of the apps.

A person briefed on the situation said the Chinese government had found content on WhatsApp and Threads about China’s President Xi Jinping that was inflammatory and violated the country’s cyber security laws. The specifics of the content was unclear, the person said.

Several other global messaging apps had also been removed from Apple’s App Store in China on April 19, including Signal, which is based in the US, and Telegram, which is based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, according to Appfigures, a market research firm that analyses the digital economy.

Signal did not immediately have comment and Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

The actions thrust Apple and Meta into an intensifying tussle over technology between the US and China. In the US, the House of Representatives was preparing to vote on a Bill as soon as this weekend that would force Chinese internet company ByteDance to sell its popular video app TikTok or have it be banned in the United States.

US lawmakers have said TikTok poses a national security threat because of its ties to China.

Chinese officials have condemned the push to force a TikTok sale.

The White House has also recently worked to restrict Beijing’s access to advanced technologies that could be used in war, as well as extend restrictions to American dollars that are used to finance the development of such technologies within Chinese borders.

Beijing has responded by banning memory chips from the US chipmaker Micron and moving to curb other American chip companies’ sales.

China has long blocked American websites including Facebook and Instagram by using an elaborate system called the Great Firewall. While WhatsApp, one of the world’s most popular messaging services, and Threads, an X-like app for digital conversation, were permitted in app stores, they were not used widely in China.

The apps were dwarfed by Chinese ones such as WeChat, which is owned by the Chinese internet company Tencent.

Still, Chinese users had been able to download WhatsApp and use it with the assistance of a virtual private network, or VPN, which is used to set up secure web connections and view prohibited content inside China.

WhatsApp had been downloaded 15 million times on iPhones in China since 2017, while Threads had been downloaded 470,000 times, according to Appfigures.

Apple has been more vulnerable than most companies to the rising tensions between the US and China. It became one of the world’s most valuable public companies by tapping China’s vast workforce and manufacturing muscle to build its iPhones and then selling the devices to the country’s growing middle class.

China now accounts for about one-fifth of Apple’s annual sales, more than US$68 billion (S$92.6 billion) in 2023.

For years, Apple has bowed to Beijing’s demands that it block an array of apps, including newspapers, VPNs and encrypted messaging services. It also built a data centre in the country to house Chinese citizens’ iCloud information, which includes personal contacts, photos and e-mail.

As the relationship between the US and China deteriorated, Apple began diversifying its supply chain and has started assembling iPhones, AirPods and Apple Watches in India and Vietnam.

Mr Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has been in Asia this week, where he has visited suppliers in Vietnam and spoken with Indonesia’s president about building a manufacturing plant there.

For Meta, any fallout will likely be less direct, given that many of its apps were already banned in China. Still, Meta makes money from Chinese companies like Temu and Shein, which pay to place advertising inside Instagram and Facebook.


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