Apple removes WhatsApp and Threads from China store under pressure from Beijing

Internet regulator orders delisting of two Meta-owned apps over ‘national security concerns’

Apple said it had removed Meta mobile communications applications WhatsApp and Threads from its online store in China under direction from the country’s internet regulator.

The iPhone maker said on Friday that the Cyberspace Administration of China had ordered the applications’ removal from the Apple App Store in the country because of “national security concerns”.

“We are obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree,” Apple said. Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

WhatsApp has more than 2 billion monthly active users globally. Threads, a Twitter-like offshoot of the Instagram photo and video platform, was the fourth most downloaded service in app stores worldwide in December, according to Appfigures.


It is unclear exactly when WhatsApp was removed from the Apple Store in China, but it was unavailable as of Friday. Another Meta communications platform, Messenger, was still available on the App Store in China, as were the main Facebook and Instagram apps.

Chinese users had previously been able to access some large western social media platforms that were officially blocked in the country, but were still available in domestic app stores. Apple’s removal of the apps closes this loophole on iPhones, though users can still download the apps on other countries’ App Stores and use them via virtual private networks.

The delistings came after China’s powerful internet regulator and the ministry of industry and information technology set a deadline of April 1st for apps operating in China to formally register with the government, said Rich Bishop, chief executive of AppInChina, a leading publisher of international apps in the country.

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Mr Bishop said Apple was already enforcing the filing requirement for Chinese developer accounts, and was required to do so for international services.

“Once Apple starts enforcing it, hundreds of thousands of apps will be removed because very few have obtained an app filing,” said Mr Bishop.

The filing requires developers to set up a local company or use a local publisher and host the back end of the app in China, said Bishop, who predicted that most companies would end up operating a second version of their apps in China.

The Wall Street Journal first reported news of the apps’ removal.

The move comes as the US Congress prepares for a Saturday vote on a bill to ban ByteDance-owned short video app TikTok if it is not divested to a non-Chinese owner.

Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg made considerable efforts a decade ago to reverse a Chinese ban on Facebook, learning Mandarin to speak to president Xi Jinping and taking his team on a well-publicised jog through heavily polluted Beijing. But the company was ultimately unable to get permission to operate locally.

Apple has suffered falling smartphone sales in China, where it faces increased competition from Huawei in the premium segment of the market and a crackdown on the use of its devices by government employees.

iPhone sales plunged 24 per cent In the first six weeks of the year, according to a Counterpoint Research report.

Apple has been offering rare discounts to bolster demand, and chief executive Tim Cook has made several trips to China since the easing of pandemic restrictions, visiting suppliers, officials and Apple employees. Last month, Cook opened Apple’s largest store in Asia in Shanghai, demonstrating the brand’s commitment to the market despite falling sales.

Mr Cook pioneered Apple’s shift of its supply chain from the US to China, establishing manufacturing of its iPhones, AirPods, Macs and iPads in the country. Apple is now trying to diversify its supply chain, relocating parts of its production to countries such as India.

Mr Cook also visited Vietnam and Indonesia over the past week for talks on possible expansion of production. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024