AUGUST 7, 2020
As if 2020 couldn’t get any worse, President Donald Trump is depriving us of the last happy place on the internet: TikTok .
Well, maybe. The president on Thursday issued an executive order that blocks people and companies from making transactions with ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok. It’s not 100% clear what this entails, but it probably means Apple and Google will have to yank the app from their app stores.
A smokescreen of confusion has enshrouded TikTok in the past week. It’s probably part of a Chinese espionage network, says the White House. To operate in the US, it will need to be bought out by a “very American” company within 45 days, says the president. That company might be Microsoft, but it also might not be.
TikTok has long been scrutinized for suspicious user data collection and ties to the Chinese Communist Party. It’s not surprising the US would eventually threaten to blacklist the app, just like India did in June and just like the US has already done to Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei .
But zoom out from scrutiny of TikTok and one thing becomes clear: The potential TikTok ban isn’t really about TikTok.
A noted enthusiast of deals, Trump said on Monday that TikTok would have 45 days to shore up a deal with a US company or else. But the preceding 45 days of unusually tense American-Chinese relations show that TikTok is really just a pawn in a larger, more perilous game.
TikTok’s biggest problem appears to be being from the wrong place at the wrong time.
On June 17, Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which penalizes China’s mistreatment of Uighur Muslims, over a million of whom are estimated to be detained in “vocational” labor camps. Then the Trump administration sanctioned several Chinese officials on July 9 including, for the first time since 1979, a member of China’s elite politburo. The US on July 13 declared China’s expansion in the South China Sea illegal and the following day ceased recognizing Hong Kong as an autonomous region. July ended with the US closing down China’s embassy in Houston, which caused China to clap back by shutting the US embassy in Chengdu.
The executive order blacklisting ByteDance — or at least, the administration’s decision to tackle TikTok now — certainly seems more about escalating action against China than about TikTok’s national security implications. TikTok wasn’t the only Chinese company punished via executive order on Thursday either: WeChat, a hugely popular messaging app owned by TenCent, was struck with a similar decree.
Now consider 2018, aka The Before Time. Prior to the Trade War, Chinese company ZTE was found to have been selling equipment to Iran, breaching US sanctions. The company should have been blacklisted. Instead Trump, trying to woo China into a favorable trade deal, gave the company a pass. (ZTE has since joined Huawei in being classified as a national security threat.)
Trump’s crackdown on TikTok isn’t baseless. There are reasons to be concerned about the app, which the White House estimates has been downloaded by 175 million users in the US. It collects enough personal data for governments around the world to find it suspicious, and a Chinese intelligence law enacted in 2017 appears to force companies like ByteDance to comply with any data access requests the ruling Communist Party might make in the name of national security.
But as far as this particular executive order goes, TikTok’s biggest problem appears to be being from the wrong place at the wrong time.
The election man cometh
Should Microsoft buy TikTok, it’s unclear how the deal would actually work. Microsoft would potentially be buying the US, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian businesses, so does that mean that data on European and Middle Eastern TikTok users would still be stored on ByteDance’s servers? Trump alluded to the US Treasury getting a finder’s fee for allowing the deal to go ahead, the legality and morality of which have been questioned.
One thing is for certain, though: China’s government is not happy.
“US administration’s smash and grab of TikTok will not be taken lying down,” reads the headline of a Monday editorial by China Daily, a state-controlled publication that’s considered a mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
“Washington is well aware that Beijing will be cautious about retaliating like-for-like,” the story threatens, adding that US job losses are likely to follow from Chinese companies pulling money out of the US. “China will by no means accept the ‘theft’ of a Chinese technology company and it has plenty of ways to respond if the administration carries out its planned smash and grab.”
It’s little surprise that TikTok blasted the executive order. But the blunt language of its statement, which accused the administration of acting in bad faith, was notable for its tone.
“For nearly a year, we have sought to engage with the US government in good faith to provide a constructive solution to the concerns that have been expressed,” TikTok’s blog post reads. “What we encountered instead was that the Administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses.”
Trump’s threat to ban TikTok received a mixed reception on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent. Some noted that China, having banned Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter, is in no position to lecture the US on the matter. But there’s a sizable portion of comments which justifiably see the move as hypocritical and unfair.
“A free market economy?” one quips, “time to revise Western economic textbooks.”
Tensions are likely to grow. With a presidential election looming, Trump’s claim to be tough on China looks to be a key part of his campaign. As election day nears and as China’s retaliation inevitably escalates, more tech companies, including those owned by TenCent, could come into the president’s crosshairs.
There’s precedent for this. When India banned TikTok in June following a clash between Indian and Chinese troops by the Himalayan border, it also considered purging more Chinese-made apps, including games made by TenCent. If Trump jumps down this rabbit hole, that would mean no more PUBG or League of Legends for US gamers. Zoom, founded by a Chinese billionaire, has already anticipated the heat: On Monday it stopped making sales to customers in China.
It looks like there’s a real possibility TikTok won’t be on our phones on Sept. 16. But many more apps could be missing by Election Day too. And if the US’ relationship with China spirals further, that could be the least of our problems.