The Media Today

Apple’s censorship in China is just the tip of the iceberg

April 25, 2024
Photo: Rick González/flickr.

Last week, the Chinese government ordered Apple to remove several widely used messaging apps—WhatsApp, Threads, Signal, and Telegram—from its app store. According to the Wall Street Journal, these apps have about three billion users globally, and have been downloaded more than a hundred and seventy million times in China since 2017. In a statement, Apple said that it was told to remove the apps because of “national security concerns,” adding that it is “obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree.” Although new downloads are now blocked, some reports said that Chinese users who had already installed the apps were still able to use them, though doing so requires the use of a virtual private network, or VPN, to get around the country’s “Great Firewall.”

Beyond Apple’s allusion to “national security,” why exactly the apps were removed is unclear. An anonymous source told the Journal that the Chinese Cyberspace Administration asked Apple to remove WhatsApp and Threads because both are home to content that includes “problematic mentions” of Xi Jinping, China’s president. The New York Times also quoted a source as saying that the apps were removed because they platformed “inflammatory” content about Xi and violated China’s cybersecurity laws. An Apple spokesperson, however, told the Journal that the apps were not removed because of content about Xi. A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the US didn’t say why the apps were targeted, but told the Washington Post that foreign companies must obey Chinese laws aimed at maintaining an “orderly” internet.

Some China experts have their own theories as to why the apps were ordered removed. As the Post noted, the move came just a few days after the US Congress resurrected a bill aimed at forcing ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, to either sell the app or be banned from the US (the Senate passed the bill on Tuesday, and President Biden signed it into law yesterday)—timing that suggests possible retaliation on China’s part. Dan Wang, a visiting China scholar at Yale Law School, told the Post that the removal of WhatsApp is largely symbolic since the platform is already banned in China—but that the Chinese government’s playbook is to reply in kind to “every American provocation,” a dynamic that might only accelerate should the US successfully impose its TikTok ban. (I wrote last week about the prospects for this, which depend on more than simply passing legislation.)

The US and Chinese governments have been playing this kind of tit-for-tat game for some time. On the US side, the White House has in recent years restricted China’s access to a variety of advanced technologies after intelligence agencies reported that Beijing was using supercomputers and artificial intelligence to develop weapons systems, and to try to crack encryption systems used by the US government. According to the Times, the Biden administration exerted its influence over supply chains in an attempt to choke off China’s access to advanced chips and other technologies. Beijing, for its part, retaliated by banning memory chips from US-based Micron Technology and reducing its purchases from other US chipmakers.

Nor is this the first time that Apple has acquiesced to requests made by the Chinese government. In 2017, the company came under fire for removing dozens of VPN apps that allowed Chinese internet users to circumvent the Great Firewall. One appmaker said at the time that it was “troubled to see Apple aiding China’s censorship efforts.” Apple responded that the Chinese government required VPN operators to have a government license, and that it therefore had no choice but to remove apps that were not in compliance. In 2020, the company removed more than thirty thousand apps from its store—mostly games—because they did not have a government license either.

In a 2021 feature on Apple’s ties to China, the Times reported that the company “proactively censors its Chinese App Store,” relying on software and company employees to flag and block apps that it fears might draw the ire of Chinese officials. The Times investigation found that “tens of thousands of apps” had disappeared from the app store in China over the previous few years—a higher figure than had been reported to that point—including those of “foreign news outlets, gay dating services, and encrypted messaging apps.” Apple also blocked a tool that pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong had used to keep tabs on the police after Chinese state media accused the company of abetting “rioters.” In 2023, the company blocked Chinese citizens—including those working at its own factories—from using its built-in AirDrop file-sharing feature to share photos of demonstrations against China’s zero-tolerance COVID restrictions.

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Some experts say that Apple’s commitment to helping the Chinese government runs much deeper than app removal—over the past two decades, they say, Apple has integrated its business with China to such an extent that it has effectively partnered with the Chinese government. China not only assembles most of Apple’s smartphones, but sales to the country and its growing middle class amounted to almost seventy billion dollars last year, equivalent to a fifth of Apple’s annual revenue. When Beijing asks for something, critics argue, Apple can’t really say no—because its business has become so reliant on the Chinese market and on Chinese manufacturers as to make total extrication almost impossible.  

In 2023, Apple shares lost close to two hundred billion dollars in market value in a matter of days following reports that China was planning to extend a ban on iPhones for government workers to cover any government-controlled organization. The Chinese government denied that it had banned iPhones, but alluded to what it called iPhone-related “security incidents.” Apple’s stock continued to fall as investors tried to determine how much of a hit the company’s sales might take, and whether the ban meant that China was falling out of love with Apple. (For what it’s worth, market research published this week showed that iPhone sales dropped nearly 20 percent in the country in the first quarter of this year, while sales of phones made by the Chinese firm Huawei surged.)

The creation of Apple’s Chinese supply chain reportedly involved hiring millions of workers, building thousands of plants, and negotiating deals with hundreds of suppliers. The Chinese government made that possible, the Times reported, by spending billions of dollars to “pave roads, recruit workers, and construct factories, power plants and employee housing.” In return, Apple has bowed to the Chinese government’s demands for control—not just over apps, but over its users’ data. In its 2021 feature, the Times detailed how Apple built a vast server farm in China in response to a new law that required all electronic data in China to be stored on servers in that country. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, has said repeatedly that the data in its Chinese server farm is safe, and that Apple is committed to its users’ privacy in a way that other technology companies are not. According to the Times, however, the building of the server farm infrastructure meant that the company “largely ceded control [over its data] to the Chinese government.” (I wrote about all this for CJR at the time.)

Apple has tried to disentangle itself from China to some extent. Cook has made trips to Vietnam and India in an attempt to diversify the company’s operations, and it now manufactures products in both those countries. But many observers are skeptical that Apple can meaningfully reduce its reliance on China. A former Apple engineer who was asked to find alternatives told the Financial Times last year that Apple has been trying to move outside the country since 2014, with little success. China, the engineer said, “is going to dominate labor and tech production for another 20 years.” 

This means that Apple’s censorship of whatever the Chinese government wants it to censor is likely to continue, too. As Matthew Turpin, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, told the Times in 2021, “Apple is discovering that geopolitics drive business models—not the other way around.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, House Speaker Mike Johnson and several other Republican lawmakers held a news conference at Columbia University; Johnson called on Minouche Shafik, the university’s president, to resign over her handling of Gaza solidarity protests (despite Shafik having called the police on participants last week) and instances of abuse aimed at Jewish students, and suggested that the National Guard be brought onto campus. Meanwhile, a faculty committee criticized external media for “sensational and inaccurate” coverage of the protests; the committee condemned discrimination, but criticized the press for its “reckless conflation” of student protesters and outside agitators. And, as similar protests spread nationwide, law enforcement arrested upwards of twenty people at the University of Texas at Austin—including a photojournalist with a local Fox affiliate.
  • Politico is out with its annual media issue. Meridith McGraw reports on how Donald Trump is getting his news in 2024; the media landscape has changed since he ran for office in 2016, not least due to Trump himself, but Trump “still prefers reading print papers and will catch recordings from his favorite cable news shows.” Adam Wren profiled Brian Glenn, a host on Right Side Broadcasting Network, which is increasingly “the pro-Trump media outlet of record for the MAGA base.” And Eli Stokols charted the relationship between the Biden administration and the Times—which is “remarkably tense, beset by misunderstandings, grudges and a general lack of trust.” Times staffers see Biden aides as unduly hostile; aides see the Times as failing to meet the moment.
  • The Times, meanwhile, dug into “the crisis at NPR”—which runs far deeper than the recent controversy over an essay in which a top editor (since departed) blasted the broadcaster for drifting into left-wing orthodoxy. NPR “is struggling to succeed in the fast-changing media industry,” the Times reports. “It is grappling with a declining audience and falling revenue—and internal conflict about how to fix it.” Meanwhile, Katherine Maher—NPR’s new CEO, who, in the wake of the essay controversy, came under fire from conservatives for liberal past tweets—defended herself in an interview with the Journal, describing the attacks as a distraction and a distortion of her views.
  • The Gateway Pundit, a far-right website that is facing legal challenges over its coverage of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday. Jim Hoft, the site’s founder, dismissed the legal challenges as “progressive liberal lawfare attacks” and described the bankruptcy move as a “common tool” to “consolidate litigation.” But CNN’s Oliver Darcy and Marshall Cohen note that “the outlet’s parent company said it currently has between $500,000 and $1 million in assets—putting it on perilous footing if it were to face a large damages award in a defamation trial.”
  • And Norah O’Donnell, of CBS, landed an interview with the pope, which the network billed as the first time that he “has given an in-depth, one-on-one interview to a U.S. broadcast network.” (Variety’s Brian Steinberg notes that a Telemundo journalist did a fifteen-minute interview with the pope last year.) “Over the years, I have asked dozens of anchors who they would interview if they could interview anyone,” Dylan Byers, a media reporter at Puck, wrote on X. “Far and away the most common answer is the Pope.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.