Navigating App Publishing in China: A 2024 Guide

To gain favor with users in the vast mobile market of Mainland China, it’s essential for apps to be distributed through the leading app stores within Mainland China. Due to the blockage of Google Play and stringent regulations in Mainland China, developers must navigate a complex app store market dominated by Chinese tech giants.

With nearly a billion smartphone users in Mainland China relying on apps for communication, entertainment, and more, understanding the current app ecosystem in Mainland China is vital for ambitious developers. This article introduces the top ten app stores in Mainland China that developers and publishers need to know about, along with some new regulations, app launches, and crucial information about app stores as of 2024.

Is Google Play Available in Mainland China?

Google Play is not accessible in Mainland China due to the extensive internet censorship system known as the “Great Firewall,” which blocks access to Google Play and most Google services like Gmail and Google Maps. Google withdrew from the Mainland China market in 2010 due to ongoing censorship demands. Therefore, Google Play doesn’t have permission to directly host apps in Mainland China, posing a significant challenge for developers accustomed to Google Play.

However, Chinese smartphone brands like Huawei and Xiaomi have full access to Google Play and Google Mobile Services when selling devices overseas, but their domestic market phones can only access app stores within Mainland China. In Mainland China, Android app hosting is entirely through third-party app stores operated by large Chinese companies. Developers must correctly understand these third-party app stores to reach Chinese users.

Can the Apple App Store Be Used in Mainland China?

Yes, the Apple App Store is accessible and used by millions of iPhone users in Mainland China, set to surpass the United States as the largest iPhone market by 2023. iPhones hold over 25% of the smartphone market share in Mainland China, with Huawei being a major competitor.

However, Apple must comply with the strict regulations of the Chinese government to maintain accessibility to the Apple App Store. Apple must swiftly remove apps deemed malicious or illegal by Chinese authorities. For app store approval, developers must ensure their app updates comply with Chinese internet laws. As of 2023, apps also require a Chinese business license for release, and there are common questions about China’s new ICP policy regarding Apple App Store mobile apps. Apple also needs to proactively filter apps related to gambling, religion, pornography, and politically sensitive topics regulated by law.

Developers might need to exclude or modify certain features for the Chinese market. Key to rapid growth in Mainland China’s market is integration with major platforms like WeChat and support for local payment methods. Despite many challenges, the Apple App Store still offers the most globally recognized and trusted app store experience for iOS users in Mainland China.

Ranking of Third-Party App Stores in Mainland China

With Google Play not directly accessible in Mainland China, the hosting of Android apps is dominated by third-party app stores operated by the largest tech companies in Mainland China.

1. Huawei AppGallery (华为应用市场)

Huawei AppGallery is the official app store for Huawei devices. All Huawei and Honor smartphones come pre-installed with this app store, and currently, Huawei and Honor are rapidly becoming one of the top smartphone brands globally. As of October 2023, Huawei’s smartphone market share in Mainland China reached 19.4%. Huawei AppGallery provides developers a pathway to reach users in the Mainland China market. As one of the world’s largest suppliers of telecommunications equipment, Huawei is at the forefront of 5G technology. Its goal is to integrate its leadership in 5G, cloud computing, and AI into its app ecosystem. Faced with the unavailability of Google services in Mainland China, Huawei is heavily investing in Huawei AppGallery. Huawei also provides technical support and cloud resources to developers. As of early 2022, Huawei AppGallery has over 580 million monthly active users globally, available in over 170 countries, and supports multiple currencies. While still reliant on Chinese apps, Huawei is rapidly expanding the international lineup of Huawei AppGallery. Huawei’s dominant position in Mainland China makes Huawei AppGallery a key channel for developers to reach users. In the competitive app market in Mainland China, leveraging Huawei’s brand influence and loyal user base is crucial.

2. Tencent My App Store (应用宝)

Tencent My App Store is the largest third-party Android market in Mainland China, with over 163 million monthly active users. Belonging to tech giant Tencent, it mainly focuses on games, entertainment, and social media apps tailored for the Chinese market. Tencent, founded in 1998, is Mainland China’s largest gaming, social media, and entertainment company. Its WeChat app, with over a billion monthly active users, is a versatile portal for socializing, payments, e-commerce, and other services. Tencent My App Store integrates deeply with its vast API interface and WeChat, providing immense exposure for apps on Tencent My App Store. WeChat’s features can be deeply integrated, allowing users to easily share and recommend apps through WeChat’s Moments. As an independently operated app store, Tencent My App Store’s monthly active users have exceeded 163 million. Tencent leverages brand effects, WeChat integration, and entertainment focus to make Tencent My App Store a strategic channel for developers.

3. XiaoMi MIUI App Store (小米应用商店)

XiaoMi MIUI App Store is the official app market for Xiaomi, one of Mainland China’s most successful consumer electronics brands. Founded in 2010, Xiaomi has rapidly become one of the largest smartphone manufacturers in Mainland China. Xiaomi smartphones and other smart devices can run the Xiaomi MIUI App Store, Xiaomi’s Android-based custom firmware. Xiaomi smartphones come pre-installed with the Xiaomi MIUI App Store. Xiaomi MIUI App Store has over 204 million monthly active users on Xiaomi devices in Mainland China, focusing on providing local apps with high user ratings and reviews. It caters to local user needs in categories like shopping, delivery, fintech, and education. The gaming section features multiplayer games and immersive Chinese-language games. For developers, Xiaomi MIUI App Store offers a target channel to attract active users. Xiaomi even provides comprehensive localization support (including UI translation and hosting). With affordable but high-spec devices, Xiaomi has amassed a large fan base. Xiaomi’s market position makes its app store a must-have program in Mainland China.

4. Baidu Mobile Assistant (百度手机助手)

Baidu Mobile Assistant fully leverages Baidu’s position as the leading search engine in Mainland China, often called “China’s Google.” Founded in 2000, Baidu holds over 70% of the search engine market share in Mainland China. When users search for apps on Baidu, it displays direct download links for Baidu Mobile Assistant. This integration with search provides Baidu Mobile Assistant with strong app discovery capabilities. As a recommendation engine, Baidu Mobile Assistant is driven by Baidu’s data on Chinese users’ search habits and preferences. The extensive coverage of the Baidu search engine and the breadth of comprehensive services make Baidu Mobile Assistant a strategic part of reaching mobile users in Mainland China. The title of “China’s Google” provides strong exposure.

5. 360 Mobile Assistant (360手机助手)

360 Mobile Assistant is created by Qihoo 360, a leading internet security company in Mainland China. Qihoo 360’s security products have over a billion PC and mobile users. Founded in 2005, Qihoo 360 was once Mainland China’s top antivirus software provider and remains the largest supplier of PC/mobile security applications. Leveraging this, 360 Mobile Assistant offers Mainland China’s most comprehensive suite of security and optimization apps, with flagship products including 360 Security, 360 Clean, 360 App Lock, and 360 Browser. 360 Mobile Assistant is widely trusted in protecting mobile users in Mainland China.

6. Oppo Software Store (Oppo程序商店)

Oppo Software Store is the official app store for Oppo, one of the top smartphone brands in Mainland China. Oppo was established in 2004 as a brand of BBK Electronics, which also owns the Vivo, Realme, and OnePlus phone brands. Oppo is mainly known for its selfie phones and fast charging technology. Oppo mobile devices are affordable for young people. Oppo phones usually come pre-installed with Oppo Software Store, providing developers a channel to reach young and active user groups. Oppo Software Store’s gaming apps and youth-centric applications are highly popular.

7. Lenovo LeStore (联想乐商店)

Lenovo LeStore is the official app market for Lenovo, one of the world’s largest PC manufacturers and a major smartphone brand in Mainland China. Founded in 1984, Lenovo focuses on producing PCs, tablets, smartphones, smart devices, data center infrastructure, etc. Lenovo LeStore has over 60,000 apps, providing optimized content for Lenovo hardware (like gaming PCs, tablets, and smart home devices). For developers, Lenovo LeStore offers a channel to reach 100 million active device users of Lenovo PCs and smartphones. Lenovo LeStore’s apps can be customized to meet the needs of large screens, stylus input, and unique features.

8. Wandoujia (豌豆荚)

Wandoujia, founded by former Google employee Wang Junyu in 2009, was a pioneer in Mainland China’s Android app store market. Wandoujia was once the second most popular Android market in Mainland China at its peak. Initially focused on desktop Android app downloads, Wandoujia quickly shifted to mobile and created an app recommendation system based on user ratings and engagement analysis. Wandoujia developed patented technology for efficient data streaming for its video platform, offering aggregated content from various sources.

9. PP Assistant (PP助手)

PP Assistant is an Android app store operated by Alibaba, a leading e-commerce giant in Mainland China. Initially launched in 2011 as “Pai Li Tao Store,” it was later renamed to “PP Assistant.” Besides Android apps, PP Assistant also runs two iOS app stores – PP Helper for regular iOS devices and Kuaiyong for jailbroken iPhones. This positions PP Assistant uniquely in both major mobile ecosystems, offering developers a platform to publish Android and iOS apps specifically for the Chinese mainland audience.

10. VIVO App Store (vivo应用商店)

The VIVO App Store is the official marketplace of VIVO, one of the most popular smartphone brands in Mainland China and an emerging force in the global mobile industry. VIVO, a brand of BBK Electronics, also parent company to Oppo, Realme, and OnePlus, was founded in 2009 and initially gained popularity for its sleek and stylish designs. Recently, VIVO has shifted its focus to embedding advanced camera and display technologies in its phones, catering to mobile photography enthusiasts. Pre-installed on all VIVO phones, the VIVO App Store provides developers access to a continually growing user base, especially among young Chinese users fond of camera apps, mobile games, and social media.

Other Notable App Markets Include:

  • Anzhi Market: An Android app store with over 100 million users, specializing in gaming.
  • Coolpad App Store: The official Android store for Coolpad smartphones.
  • Tianyi Space Client: A pre-installed app store by a state-owned telecom company in Mainland China.
  • ZTE App Store: The official app market for ZTE Android devices.
  • Sogou Mobile Assistant: An app store by leading Chinese search engine Sogou.
  • AppChina: An independent Android app store with over 100 million users.
  • Meizu Flyme: Meizu’s official app store and custom Android system.
  • Android Market by Cheetah Mobile: An Android app store developed by Cheetah Mobile Security.
  • Zhuoyi Market: A rapidly growing independent app store with over 100 million active users.

These markets offer additional channels for developers to target specific demographics or device brands. Despite some consolidation, Mainland China’s app ecosystem still requires stronger cohesion and integration. As Chinese tech giants vie for dominance in the mobile sector, this landscape continues to evolve, with some leaders solidifying their positions through pre-installed deals, strategic acquisitions, and strong brand marketing.

Key Differences: OEM vs Third-Party App Stores

There are significant differences between OEM app stores like those of Oppo, Xiaomi, and Huawei, and third-party app stores like Tencent’s MyApp and 360 Mobile Assistant:

  • Pre-installed vs Optional: OEM stores are pre-installed on their respective brand devices, while third-party stores require manual download by users.
  • Optimized Content: OEM stores prioritize apps optimized and tested for their devices, whereas third-party stores offer more diverse content.
  • Business Model: OEM stores focus on strengthening brand and device sales, while third-party stores seek ad revenue sharing and user data profits.
  • App Review: OEM stores generally have stricter controls over apps, whereas third-party stores are more lenient, often hosting a wider range of apps.
  • Payment Integration: OEM stores usually employ their brand’s payment systems, offering limited options, whereas third-party stores provide various payment methods.
  • Proprietary Apps: OEM stores might have exclusive apps utilizing proprietary device features. While OEM stores have a dedicated user base, third-party stores can reach a broader audience across different brands. Both types are crucial for reaching users.

Requirements for Launching Apps in Mainland China

To meet the requirements for launching apps in Mainland China, you can follow these steps:

  • Establish a company in Mainland China and obtain the necessary business licenses. It must be a local entity.
  • Partner with cloud hosting providers in Mainland China for domestic servers and technical support.
  • Apply for a developer license from the Chinese Copyright Protection Center to protect the intellectual property of each app and submit code samples.
  • Acquire an ICP license compliant with internet content regulations from your hosting provider.
  • Localize your app into Simplified Chinese and adjust content according to the guidelines of Chinese app stores.
  • Integrate with Chinese social platforms like WeChat, Weibo, and QQ. Support local payment methods like WeChat Pay, Alipay, and UnionPay.
  • Ensure your app architecture only allows storing all Chinese user data within Mainland China.
  • Submit the required app store documentation and builds for review/approval.
  • Continuously update your app to meet the evolving regulatory and market requirements. Navigating China’s regulatory landscape and fragmented app ecosystem requires significant effort but offers access to a highly valuable mobile market. Success in this lucrative market is achievable with the right strategy, local partnerships, and patience.

Note: Partnering with a Chinese company can assist with app store relations, marketing, localization, and cloud hosting in Mainland China.

China’s mobile sector continues to grow at an astonishing pace. Flexibility and quick adaptation are vital in this thriving environment. Despite some nuances, Mainland China represents a huge market that ambitious app developers cannot afford to overlook.