Apple has always had a bit of a strange relationship with China — it’s a difficult country for any major western company to do business in, and while Apple generally seems to fare better than many others, it still operates in that country at the discretion of the authoritarian Chinese government.
Of course, no doubt part of Apple’s success in China is due to the large amount of money it pours into Chinese manufacturing, not to mention the popularity of the iPhone among Chinese consumers, but as we’ve seen many times in the past, that influence only goes so far.
For example, most of Apple’s vaunted services business isn’t available at all in China, despite launching in dozens of other countries.
Unlike many of its competitors, Apple is no slouch when it comes to international rollouts — Apple TV+ was available on day one in over 100 countries, with its TV shows and movies offered in seven spoken languages and subtitled in over 40. By comparison, the extremely high-profile launch of Disney+ a week later was confined to the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands.
China, however, is another story entirely, with almost all of Apple’s services blocked entirely from that country. This includes not only Apple TV+, but also Apple News+ and even Apple Arcade, and while the first two are pretty understandable considering Chinese censorship, many wondered why Apple Arcade has also found its way onto the list of the Chinese government’s undesirable services.
Cracking Down on Games
Well, it turns out that the Chinese government also takes a pretty authoritarian stance on games, and it’s actually an area where Apple has been skirting Chinese regulators for several years without being overtly challenged.
Perhaps ironically, it took the novel coronavirus pandemic and the resulting surge in popularity of the game Plague, Inc. to bring the matter to light a few months ago, revealing that there were potentially dozens, or even hundreds of games on the App Store in China that had not actually been approved by the Chinese government.
Back in 2016, China passed a new law requiring all video games in any form — PC, mobile, or otherwise — to be licensed by the government before they can be distributed in China.
This licensing process took the form of developers applying directly to the Chinese government, with approved apps being issued an “ISBN” number by Chinese authorities. Games without an ISBN number aren’t allowed to be sold. This also had to be done on a game-by-game basis — there were no blanket approvals, and developers had to vet each and every new title, and in some cases even updates, before they were legally allowed to be sold in China.
While Apple naturally complied with the new Chinese law back in 2016 and began asking developers to supply their ISBN numbers, it seems that it never actually bothered to check any of the ISBNs to ensure that they were valid.
Further, Apple’s approval process only required ISBN numbers for games that were being released in China for the first time — apps that were published outside of China first could later be added to the Chinese App Store without having to go through Apple’s China-specific approval procedure.
It seems likely that the Chinese government turned a blind eye to this for at least a couple of years — there were reports in the Chinese state-run media as far back as 2018 criticizing Apple for doing this — without actually cracking down, but after the scandal with Plague, Inc. and its connection to the novel coronavirus, the pressure on Apple clearly increased, as it announced earlier this year that Chinese developers would have until June 30th to provide proof that their apps are in fact licensed and authorized by Chinese authorities.
While it was originally unclear how many apps had managed to circumvent Chinese licensing laws, it seems that now we know exactly how widespread the problem is: According to Reuters, over the weekend Apple pulled 29,800 apps from the Chinese App Store.
This follows a purge of 2,500 games during the first week in July, which were likely the initial wave of those that couldn’t comply with the June 30th deadline to provide proof of licensing. According to Bloomberg, however, Apple’s cut-off date for actually removing unlicensed games was actually July 31st.
The initial sweep impacted games from well-known developers like Zynga and Supercell. Of the apps removed over the weekend, 26,000 were games, while the remainder were made of an unspecified list of non-game apps.
It’s worth noting that this loophole only existed for Apple users, since the Google Play Store is not actually available in China. Instead, Android users have to rely on local Chinese-run app stores, which naturally adhered much more tightly to the Chinese regulations.
While this is obviously not the first time Apple has been forced to remove apps from its App Store in China, it’s the most wholesale purge we’ve ever seen.
Most others have been on a case-by-case basis, such as the elimination of The New York Times app and the contentious removal of the HKmap Live in Hong Kong. There was also a similar crackdown on Podcasting apps back in June, which seemed to be a result of the usual censorship issues — apps that were willing to comply with Chinese content restrictions on Podcast availability were allowed to remain, while those that refused to censor their catalogues found themselves turfed from the Chinese App Store.
In this case, however, the issue isn’t about the content of individual games themselves — at least not directly. Rather, Chinese regulators are taking a much broader hardline approach against mobile gaming due to concerns about potentially offensive content and gaming addiction among minors. In fact, back in 2018, the Chinese government halted all game approvals as it worked to adopt a more strict (and slower) review process.
At this point, about 179,000 games now remain in the Chinese App Store, although about 160,000 of them are free titles, which aren’t impacted by the Chinese regulations.