Being tough on China is a linchpin of Trump’s re-election campaign.
“Brazen hypocrisy” is perhaps not the most diplomatic phrase one could use to describe China’s reaction to President Donald Trump’s recent threat to ban TikTok. But it’s accurate. Coming from a country which effectively splintered itself from the global internet in the early 2010s under the excuse of national security, China’s reaction is a bit rich.
If you are visiting China and try to use Gmail or Snapchat to contact home you’ll fail, as they are among a plethora of blocked websites in the country. Most of the major English-language social media and productivity sites are blocked. If you are in your hotel in Beijing and fancy looking at some YouTube videos to pass the time, don’t even try, as most streaming sites are inaccessible. Nearly all western-based news media sites are also banned, as are your normal search engines. China is paranoid about controlling the minds of its 1.4bn citizens in case they think differently to the way the Communist Party requires them to do.
So you can see how transparently blatant is China’s hypocrisy in criticising this relatively modest move by the United States.
When President Trump announced his executive order earlier this month, effectively banning any US transactions with TikTok, the weaponisation of the internet, which began with Beijing’s “Great Firewall of China”, is nearing completion.
In many ways, Trump’s announcement of a new “tech Cold War” between the US and China came as no surprise. Earlier in July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo applauded Prime Minister Modi for banning TikTok and 57 other Chinese-owned apps as a threat to India’s national security, and suggested that the US might soon follow suit. It did.
Donald Trump is also wellknown for seeking revenge. He was hugely embarrassed by the poor turnout at his campaign rally in Tulsa Oklahoma in June. TikTok users claimed to have registered hundreds of thousands of tickets as a prank, and not turning up at the largely empty stadium. “Oh no, I signed up for the Trump rally, and I can’t go”, one woman joked along with a fake cough in a TikTok post on 15 June, which went viral. The thin-skinned Trump is not immune to mockery and TikTok suddenly appeared squarely in his sights.
Touted as vital to protect Americans’ data, the crackdown on TikTok is in fact simply a depressing example of jingoistic opportunism, more likely to chill investment in America and stoke Chinese nationalism, if indeed it requires any further stoking. The legal basis of this action against TikTok comes from the US Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) that underlies US sanctions programmes. Recently, the CFIUS ruled that a deal to enter the US market made by TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, was against America’s national-security interests.
Most apps effectively function as spyware, collecting huge amounts of data on users. In this respect, TikTok is no different to apps like Facebook. On a purely personal level, China may technically have stronger data protection laws than the US, but the problem arises once the government comes into play. China’s national security law, and the overwhelming reality of life in a dictatorial party-state, means that companies have no choice but to turn that data over to the state on demand. Contrast that with Apple’s ability to refuse to unlock a gunman’s iPhone to the FBI earlier this year.
But is TikTok really a threat to US’ or India’s national security? Of course not. Both Donald Trump and Narendra Modi are using TikTok as a political weapon. China presents many problems in the area of data security, nobody denies that, but TikTok users watching short and often mindless videos isn’t one of them. Trump’s threat to the app sent shockwaves through the TikTok community, with many content creators rushing to launch live streams to direct followers to alternative platforms, such as the newly launched Instagram “Reels”, a TikTok imitation which also allows users to post short videos and songs. Videos reacting to the potential ban ranged from technical tips on how to evade it, to anger at Trump, to indifference over data privacy. The user in one viral video lamented: “Am I the only one who doesn’t care if China collects my data?” Another joked “Let the Chinese government have my data; they know me better than I know myself.” They made a good point. Surveys regularly show that app users know full well that their data is harvested, but are content to exchange it for the facilities provided by the apps.
Now that the coronavirus has destroyed his economic argument, President Trump’s move against TikTok is wholly connected to his re-election strategy of showing strength, either at home against protestors or abroad against China, strength which he claims his opponent, Joe Biden, lacks. Ultimately, the boundary between legitimate security concerns, political calculations that only have domestic issues at their heart, and good old-fashioned protectionism (America First) is a very feint one.
With TikTok, the sense of deliberately distorting and manipulating facts to suit an agenda, rather than devising an agenda to respond to the facts, is palpable, as it is in so many other areas of the Trump presidency.
The evidence strongly suggests that TikTok is an issue because the US under Trump, particularly during a trade war and the lead up to presidential elections, cannot countenance Chinese commercial and technological success without searching for security or competition grounds to combat it. But all is not lost for TikTok’s 100 million users in America. The restrictions in the executive order are set to take effect on 20 September, unless there is a change of ownership, which remains likely. Microsoft was already progressing a planned acquisition, so the announcement allows a period for completion. Thanks to the tight deadline, Microsoft is likely to snap up a crown jewel at a discount as TikTok is the fourth most popular app in the world. Twitter has emerged as an alternative suitor, but it’s unclear if the company could complete a deal within the 45-day window, even if it could afford to buy TikTok. Twitter’s market capitalisation is about $29bn, dwarfed by Microsoft’s $1.6tn. It’s worth noting that if a deal does not succeed and the ban comes into effect, the prohibition on US transactions with TikTok will impact the platform well beyond its US user base.
The withdrawal of transactions with American companies will have a huge effect on app stores, cloud services and high-end hardware, leading to the prospect of a fractured global internet and a world where internet apps available to citizens differ according to where they live.
This latest move by President Trump is seen as a key part of his broader China strategy. China’s provoked reaction plays directly into his hands as US companies are now forced to start considering the risk of their position in China, perhaps returning business to the US. This isn’t just about walling off Chinese tech from global markets, it’s an attempt to force a much wider decoupling. The moves by China-hawks in the White House, such as Pompeo, definitely won’t end here. “Freedom-loving nations of the world must induce China to change”, he said in July, “because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity”.
Being tough on China is a linchpin of Trump’s re-election campaign and many more forms of Chinese power and economic reach are likely to be targeted as 3 November Election Day fast approaches.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.