In Box

The Great App Firewall

Five iPhone programs you can't use in China.


With more than 50 billion downloads of its 850,000-plus choices, Apple’s App Store seems like it has something for everyone. As long as you follow the rules, that is — no pornography (sorry, Hustler), no poor taste (sorry, Baby Shaker), and keep the ridicule of public figures to a minimum (sorry, pantsless Bill Clinton bouncing on a trampoline). But now that China has fallen in love with iPhones and iPads, there’s a whole new set of rules for what’s allowed. Apple, unlike Google, has never publicly explained its censorship policies in the Middle Kingdom. In a rare example to have made it into the English-language media, Apple told a developer in April that his online bookstore app had to be removed because it “includes content that is illegal in China.” (The developer speculated it was because he hosted three books by dissident author Wang Lixiong.) Publishing banned books, however, is just one way to fall afoul of China’s censors. Here are five other types of apps that are censored in China.


Residents of China first reported Facebook being blocked in 2008, followed by Twitter a year later. Facebook found itself shut off a few months after the 2008 Lhasa riots, when Tibetans and their supporters used Facebook to broadcast their grievances with Beijing’s rule. While it’s relatively easy for residents of China to access these sites through roundabout methods — dissident artist Ai Weiwei has more than 215,000 followers on Twitter, for example — neither works if you download it from Apple’s Chinese app store. But some social media apps make it through the firewall. iFlashMob mobile, which describes itself as a “powerful yet simple way to stay connected” (and perhaps even convene a protest or two) is easily downloadable.


Chinese tech companies provide their own free mapping apps; leading search engine Baidu, for example, has one, and Chinese map firm AutoNavi has an app that provides high-end navigation services. On the one hand, both take pains to expand China’s contested borders to include places like the disputed Diaoyu Islands (the Senkakus to the Japanese). But some Chinese military sites are simply blank spaces, and even Baidu’s detailed Beijing map has an odd black hole: Zhongnanhai, the seat of the Chinese government, for which the map lists only the names of the two lakes in the compound.


On April 1, Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized directly to the Chinese people for poor customer service, after facing weeks of attacks from state media claiming that the company is disrespectful and “arrogant.” Eight days later, the Chinese newspaper Securities Daily went even further, reporting that Apple was breaking the law. The crime? Hosting the app “Spreading Falun Dafa.” Representatives or followers of Falun Dafa (often known as Falun Gong), a Chinese religion that Beijing banned in 1999, created the app, which contains a selection of the religion’s texts. Two days later, Securities Daily crowed that Apple had deleted it (though many other religious apps, from Quran Explorer to Daily Bible Inspirations, are still accessible).


Pornography is technically banned on the Chinese Internet, though still widely available. But there’s no messing with Apple’s Chinese app store. A few apps that brand themselves as, um, instructional — presumably to get past censors — are available, but they’re pretty tame. The English-language “Sex Master” free app, for example, which promises “sex education without censorship,” offers nothing more titillating than kisses and bare legs.


Marijuana is illegal in China, though its use is mostly tolerated by officials (if not parents) and it’s surprisingly available, especially in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where it grows wild. In the United States, the craving for marijuana has spawned dozens of Apple apps. The Marijuana Handbook offers to teach you how to be a “Smoking Guru”; Weed Strains 3D promises “great tasting medicinal edible recipes”; and Legal Maps provides directions to a cannabis dispensary near you. A recent search for marijuana in Chinese (“big hemp”), however, returned only one result: a children’s puzzle, graced with an image of a creature that looks like a rhinoceros.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish