Apple says it has been ordered to pull WhatsApp from the Chinese App Store

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

The iPhone maker said China's internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration, has ordered the removal of WhatsApp and Threads from its app store due to national security concerns. Apple said it complied with the rules because “we are obligated to follow the laws of the countries in which we operate, even when we disagree.”

A Meta spokesperson referred requests for comment to Apple. The Wall Street Journal previously reported Apple's removal of the apps.

A person briefed on the situation said the Chinese government found content on WhatsApp and Threads about China's president, Xi Jinping, that was inflammatory and violated the country's cybersecurity laws. Specifics of the content were unclear, the person said.

An Apple spokesperson denied that the Chinese government ordered the apps removed due to inflammatory content on WhatsApp and Threads about Xi.

Several other global messaging apps were removed from Apple's App Store in China on Friday, including Signal, which is based in the United States, and Telegram, which is based in Dubai, according to Appfigures, a market research firm that analyzes the digital economy. Signal did not immediately receive a comment and Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

The actions push Apple and Meta into an increasingly intense fight over technology between the United States and China. In the United States, the House of Representatives was preparing to vote as early as this weekend on a bill that would force Chinese internet company ByteDance to sell its popular video app TikTok or ban it in the United States. US lawmakers have said TikTok poses a national security threat due to its ties to China. Chinese officials have condemned the push to force the sale of TikTok.

The White House has also recently worked to limit Beijing's access to advanced technologies that could be used in warfare, as well as to extend restrictions on U.S. dollars used to finance the development of such technologies within China's borders. Beijing responded by banning memory chips from U.S. maker Micron and trying to curb sales of other American chip companies.

China has long blocked American websites, including Facebook and Instagram, using an elaborate system called the Great Firewall. Although WhatsApp, one of the world's most popular messaging services, and Threads, an X-like app for digital conversations, were allowed in app stores, they were not widely used in China. The apps have been dwarfed by Chinese ones like WeChat, owned by Chinese internet company Tencent.

However, Chinese users were able to download WhatsApp and use it with the assistance of a virtual private network, or VPN, used to set up secure web connections and view content banned in China.

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

Apple has been more vulnerable than most companies to rising tensions between the United States and China. It became one of the world's most valuable public companies by leveraging China's vast workforce and manufacturing strength to build its iPhones and then selling the devices to the country's growing middle class. China now accounts for about a fifth of Apple's annual sales, more than $68 billion last year.

For years, Apple has bowed to Beijing's demands to block a variety of apps, including newspapers, VPNs and encrypted messaging services. It has also built a data center in the country to host Chinese citizens' iCloud information, which includes personal contacts, photos and emails.

As relations between the United States and China deteriorated, Apple began to diversify its supply chain and began assembling iPhones, AirPods, and Apple Watches in India and Vietnam.

Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, was in Asia this week, where he visited suppliers in Vietnam and spoke with Indonesia's president about building a manufacturing plant there.

For Meta, the consequences will likely be less direct, given that many of its apps have already been banned in China. However, Meta makes money from Chinese companies like Temu and Shein, which pay to place ads on Instagram and Facebook.

Meta and Apple have long had a difficult business relationship. Apple introduced more restrictions on the types of tracking companies could perform on its devices, severely limiting Meta's ability to gain insights into user behavior for its digital advertising business. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, has publicly lashed out against what he believes are Apple's overly restrictive privacy guidelines.

In the United States, moves against TikTok have gained momentum in recent days, with House Speaker Mike Johnson packaging a measure to force ByteDance to sell the app alongside other foreign aid bills for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Chamber deputies will vote on the legislative package on Saturday. If the package passes, the measures will be sent in a single bill to the Senate, which could vote soon after. President Biden has said he will sign the TikTok legislation into law if it reaches his desk.

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