Apple pulls WhatsApp and Threads from Chinese App Store

Apple CEO Tim Cook  (Reuters)
Apple CEO Tim Cook (Reuters)

Apple has removed Meta’s WhatsApp and Threads from its App Store in China on the orders of the Chinese government, the company has said.

China demanded the apps be pulled based because it had “national security concerns”, Apple told Reuters on Friday. "We are obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree," Apple said.

Neither Meta nor the Cyberspace Administration of China have commented on the report.

The move means the Chinese public can no longer download the apps in the country. WhatsApp has more than 2 billion monthly users worldwide and Threads, a Twitter rival that lets people share text-based posts, became the quickest app to reach 100 million users shortly after its launch last year.

Two other messaging services, Telegram and Signal, have also been dropped from Apple’s Chinese App Store, according to a Bloomberg report on Friday. Other Meta-owned apps like Facebook, Instagram and Messenger remain available in China. It is unclear why WhatsApp, Threads and the rest were targeted specifically.

This isn’t the first time Apple has removed apps in China at the behest of the Chinese government. Last August, it pulled a wave of generative artificial intelligence apps, including some that were powered by ChatGPT, ahead of new guidelines governing the distribution of AI services.

In 2017, Apple removed the New York Times app from the China App Store after it fell foul of local regulations.

China’s strict internet censorship regime, known as the “Great Firewall”, restricts access to foreign websites and online services. The government also monitors internet traffic to limit the information available to Chinese citizens.

Last year, China tightened its internet policies by requiring apps to be registered in the country or risk being deleted from app stores. Companies had until the end of March to complete registrations before enforcement of the rules began on April 1.

Apple’s actions come amid intense scrutiny of social video platform TikTok in its native US. Lawmakers in the country are poised to vote on a legislative bill that would force TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance to either sell up or get banned.

US tech firms face a delicate balancing act over their business ties with China as tensions grow between Washington and Beijing.

Meta CEO and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has made several visits to China in the past to try to gain access to the lucrative Chinese market. However, in recent years the tech billionaire has been an outspoken critic of China’s TikTok and corporate Chinese espionage.

“I think it’s well documented that the Chinese government steals technology from American companies,” Mr Zuckerberg testified before Congress in 2020.

Meta has also funded PR campaigns that described TikTok as a threat to American children.Last year, an editorial published by a Chinese state-controlled media outlet said Mr Zuckerberg had self-sabotaged his efforts to crack China, accusing him of “shooting himself in the foot”.