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App makes a stand against China messaging ban with cute merch

The Japanese messaging app Line may be blocked in China, but it's still raking in cash from merchandise based on its cartoon characters at a huge mall in Beijing.

Despite the messaging app being blocked in China, Line continues its to sell merchandise at its pop-up store in Beijing. Francis Bea/CNET

Despite being banned by the Chinese government, popular Japanese messaging app Line is making a stand by opening a pop-up shop in the heart of Beijing.

New regulations imposed last week by China's State Internet Information Office (SIIO) require users of instant messaging apps to sign up with their real names, and to seek permission before publishing political news. Apps such as Line and Korea's KakaoTalk no longer work, while China-owned apps such as WeChat have complied with the new rules.

Users are required to sign an agreement "promising to uphold the law, the socialist system, national interests... and information authenticity," according to the SIIO, as quoted by the BBC.

Line continues to trade in China though. The company recently opened up a pop-up shop in the middle of Beijing's bustling Sanlitun Village -- a shopping center similar to New York City's SoHo district. The company isn't holding back with its showy display, and the timing of Line's appearance in the village is not a coincidence.

"Chinese love Line's characters," a Line sales manager at the store, who asked not to be named, told me. "We're monetizing the Chinese."

Capitalizing on the popularity of its in-app avatars, Line has sprinkled Sanlitun Village with props, including a giant inflatable brown bear called "Brown", who welcomes visitors at the entrance.

While Line until now has made money from its Chinese users through mobile games, stickers, and public accounts, the company is apparently determined to make the best of its situation, selling Line merchandise including mugs, stuffed plushies, and more.

Line is Japan's biggest messaging app, with 300 million users worldwide. Available for all major mobile platforms, it lets users text and voice chat for free, as well as swap audio and videos. Line has made no official statement on the situation in China.

The motive for China's decision isn't straightforward. It has implied that these foreign messaging apps were enabling terrorists to communicate, but has yet to provide any evidence.