India Bans More Chinese Smartphone Apps

Members of the Working Journalist of India (WJI) hold placards urging citizens to remove Chinese apps and stop using Chinese products during a demonstration against the Chinese newspaper Global Times, in New Delhi on June 30, 2020. - TikTok on June 30 denied sharing information on Indian users with the …
PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images

India banned an uncertain number of Chinese smartphone apps Tuesday, adding to the 59 banned at the end of June and 47 more, mostly clones and alternate versions of the original 59, in July.

One of the newly blacklisted apps is Mi Browser Pro, another version of a popular web browser that was preinstalled on many Chinese phones sold in India until the “Boycott China” initiative began.

Both banned versions of Mi Browser are products of the Chinese company Xiaomi, which said this week it was “working towards understanding the development” and would “adhere to all data privacy and security requirements under the Indian law.”

Voice of America News (VOA) noted that fully banning the Mi Browser could potentially halt the sale of Xiaomi smartphones, and others that normally preinstall the app, unless the phone makers agree to stop installing it on phones sold in India.

The updated blacklist includes browser plugins from Chinese mega-corporation Baidu, video editing tools, email services, and possibly the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo — effectively a substitute for Twitter, which China has banned citizens from using. IndiaTV quoted reports on Thursday that said the Weibo app does not appear on software download sites in India, including the Google Play Store.

The earlier rounds of Indian software bans included TikTok, the video microblogging platform that faces a possible ban in the United States unless ownership of the program passes from its Chinese creators to Microsoft.

One of the biggest shoes that may yet drop is a possible Indian ban on Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile, commonly known as PUBG — the mobile version of one of the world’s most popular video games. IndiaTV reported the Indian government is reviewing security and privacy concerns around the mobile version of PUBG, which has a long and complicated international history. The mobile version is a highly profitable product of China’s Tencent, a vast corporation with interests in many gaming services. 

Ironically, Tencent once came close to abandoning PUBG Mobile because the Chinese government thought it was excessively violent and not “patriotic” enough (PUBG is a “battle royale” game in which the players hunt and kill each other until only one remains).

PUBG Mobile is free, but brings in a huge amount of revenue through in-app purchases. It has hundreds of millions of players, including about 33 million in India, and frequently ties in with popular movies and television shows. 

The app is so popular in India that one of the top questions asked by prospective smartphone buyers is whether the phone is capable of running the game. The Indian gaming community is very apprehensive about the possibility of the game getting banned, particularly after it accumulated millions of new players during the coronavirus lockdowns.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it was “strongly concerned” about news of more Chinese apps banned in India.

“The Indian government has the responsibility to protect the legitimate rights and interests of international investors in India, including Chinese businesses, in accordance with market principles. Practical cooperation between China and India is mutually beneficial. Deliberate interference in such cooperation will not serve the interests of the Indian side,” said a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in India, as quoted by the Straits Times.

The Straits Times noted that Chinese companies operating in the Indian market have been asked a list of 77 questions by the Indian information technology ministry, including questions about whether they have censored content, worked on behalf of the Chinese government, attempted to influence Indian politics or culture, and whether they have been investigated by any government for harvesting user data. 

The ban on Chinese apps has evidently invigorated the Indian tech industry, as the Straits Times reported a “surge in homemade apps” that replace blacklisted Chinese software. Some of these apps advertise themselves as made-in-India alternatives and are praised by Indian users as the best alternative to apps like TikTok.

The Chinese government and its state media are mounting a major effort to push back against software bans in Asia, Europe, and the United States. China’s Global Times excoriated the U.S. State Department’s “clean network” initiative as a form of “McCarthyism” in an editorial on Thursday, slamming the effort to purge Chinese hardware and software from mobile networks as irrational paranoia, protectionism, and a crude effort to rally political support by scapegoating China.

“Although Pompeo’s threats to ban Chinese apps reminded people clearly of India, which has banned hundreds of Chinese apps in the past weeks, the US government may actually not have as much power as its Indian counterpart,” the Global Times remarked, drawing a parallel between the U.S. initiative and India’s growing blacklist.

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