China orders Apple to remove WhatsApp, Threads, other apps in censorship move: report

Apps also include Signal and Telegram that have been scrubbed from Apple's App Store in China

Apple has removed popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal from its iPhone app store in China after the Chinese government ordered the company to do so, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

"We are obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree," an Apple spokesperson told the Journal, confirming Chinese officials demanded the tech giant scrub a number of apps over national security concerns.

The Apple logo on a store in Sydney

Apple on Friday confirmed that it removed some apps from its Apple App Store in China at the request of the Chinese government. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images)

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Citing a person familiar, the Journal reported that the Cyberspace Administration of China asked Apple to remove Meta-owned WhatsApp and Threads from the App Store "because both contain political content that includes problematic mentions of the Chinese president," but the Apple spokesperson denied that was part of the reasoning.

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The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) keeps tight controls on what the nation's citizens are exposed to and suppresses political speech critical of the regime. Beijing has passed legislation and regulations to include specifications on what kinds of content should be prohibited online and bars pro-democracy media.

Xi Jinping Speaks Politburo

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the unveiling of the Communist Party of China's new Politburo Standing Committee at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 23, 2022. (Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images)

China's demand that Apple remove the apps suggests growing intolerance on the part of China's central government towards at least some foreign online messaging services that fall outside its control. It also signals less leeway for Apple in China, its largest overseas market.

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The move comes as the Senate prepares to take up a bill passed by the House last month that could see popular social media app TikTok banned in U.S. app stores if its China-based parent company, Bytedance, does not divest from it within 165 days of passage. It would also require the platform to be bought by a country that is not a U.S. adversary.

The Meta logo

Apple removed four apps from its App Store in China on Friday at the request of China's Cyberspace Administration. (Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration / Reuters Photos)

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According to Reuters, other Meta apps including Facebook, Instagram and Messenger remained available for download in China as of Friday, along with other popular apps developed by Western companies, including Google-owned YouTube and Elon Musk's X.

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FOX Business' Elizabeth Elkin and Reuters contributed to this report.