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,” the company 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.

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.


China’s government firewall already blocked access to WhatsApp, although users could use the app with the help of virtual private networks, or VPNs. Now, the apps won’t be available for download.

The government has also been cracking down on VPNs.

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 a bid to lessen that dependence, Apple has been expanding production elsewhere, including Vietnam and India.

The immediate spark for this week’s clampdown remains unclear.

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.