Apple is ringing in the new year in China with the censors knocking on its doors.
The California-based tech giant has removed the New York Times from its app store in China, reports the paper (paywall). The move is the latest indication of a broader government crackdown on the media, and of pressure on Apple itself.
The Times reports that the app ceased to show up in the app store on Dec. 23. When the paper asked about its disappearance, Apple said it had “been informed that the app is in violation of local regulations.” Apple did not specify which regulations it had violated when asked by the Times and Quartz.
Even before its removal, the newspaper’s app didn’t always function properly from within China. Viewing content often required getting online through a proxy service like a virtual private network (VPN). And since 2012 authorities have blocked direct access (paywall) to paper’s website, forcing readers to use either a VPN or “mirror sites” prone to disappearing as quickly as they surfaced.
Authorities seem to be singling out the New York Times. Apps for the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times remain downloadable, despite their websites also being blocked from within China.
And while China’s censors sometimes act arbitrarily, in the case of the New York Times their timing seems intentional. The app’s removal came days before the paper published a lengthy piece (paywall) from reporter David Barboza revealing how the Chinese government provided billions of dollars in subsidies to Foxconn, Apple’s manufacturing partner, in order to help produce the iPhone. Their blocking of the paper’s website in 2012 came just as Barboza published a piece about the hidden wealth of then-premier Wen Jiabao.
As for Apple, this isn’t the first time it’s bowed to Chinese authorities over media matters. In April 2016, the company confirmed that the government asked it to shutter its iBooks and iTunes stores (it complied). And it disabled its Apple News service for all users in China, even if their accounts were established in another country.
The government has tightened its control over the media in recent years. In 2015, it passed regulations restricting the activities of foreign internet media companies, TV studios, game developers, and livestreaming operations.
Apple’s revenue from China has experienced negative annual growth over the past nine months. Last quarter, sales from Greater China (which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan) fell behind those of Europe for the first time since 2014.
Barboza’s article on Foxconn illustrated how the Chinese government can help a company’s fortunes. The converse is true, too. As iPhone sales fall globally and Apple searches for its next hit product, it needs the support of Chinese authorities to succeed in the world’s largest consumer market. That might require publicity tours and strategic investments—as well as painful choices about censorship.