First, let’s dispose of the notion that Apple could have chosen to defy the Chinese government and keep the VPN apps in the App Store. Technically, Apple could have done that. But if they had, there would have been consequences. My guess is that the Chinese government would move to block all access to the App Store in China, or even block access to all Apple servers, period. This would effectively render all iOS devices mostly useless. iPhones have been sagging in popularity in China for a few years now — with no access to apps, their popularity would drop to zero. And Apple would have a lot of angry iPhone-owning users in China on its hands.
When I first saw how hard Apple was pushing into China, to expand its potential market, my only thought was, that they were in it for the money. Quite frankly, I believe they should leave China. What’s more, they should never have entered it. If they choose to remain there, then they should stand by their beliefs — today it’s VPNs, tomorrow it will be asking for access to iMessages or some other nonsense. At this point all Apple can do is “pray they don’t alter the deal further.”
While this is obviously a much deeper subject, Apple being in China with the iPhone always felt wrong to me.