Despite being blocked by China’s Great Firewall, Meta’s Threads app has rapidly climbed to the fifth position in the social networking category of Apple’s China App Store. The Western social networking platform is gaining popularity in a country where apps like Instagram and Facebook are banned.
Users in mainland China must rely on censorship circumvention tools like VPNs to access Threads due to the app’s blocked status. However, the app’s impressive performance in terms of new installs has contributed to its high ranking.
Threads currently trails behind major Chinese social giants like Xiaohongshu, WeChat (with over 1 billion monthly users), QQ, and Weibo. Its presence in the China App Store is notable, considering the historical ban on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which have remained accessible through the store despite being blocked by the Great Firewall. This suggests that Threads may be connecting to Meta’s servers that are already unavailable in China.
Apple’s inclusion of Threads in the App Store also allows the company to avoid potential criticisms related to removing apps based on Beijing’s requests. Unlike its decision to exclude European Union countries due to data privacy complexities, removing apps in response to Beijing’s requests would raise political concerns.
Chinese censors typically take action against Western social apps after they gain significant traction. For example, Clubhouse, a live audio app, was swiftly blocked and removed from the China App Store once it attracted Chinese users discussing politically sensitive topics. Damus, a decentralized Twitter rival supported by Jack Dorsey, faced removal from the China App Store due to “illegal content.”
Censoring Threads could pose a challenge as the app plans to operate on a decentralized infrastructure using ActivityPub, the protocol behind Mastodon and other Twitter alternatives. Shutting down all decentralized relays for Damus has proven difficult, highlighting the complexities of censoring such platforms.
In China, launching a foreign social app legally requires developing a localized version compliant with strict content filters, as LinkedIn did. However, this compromises the user experience and can be costly to maintain due to content monitoring. LinkedIn ultimately withdrew from the Chinese market in 2021.