Talk of selling or banning TikTok complicates China-US relations

Talk of selling or banning TikTok complicates China-US relations

The latest US-China clash over popular social media app TikTok is likely to worsen the already deteriorating relationship between the two countries, as Beijing and Washington battle over software bans, technology exports and concerns about espionage and national security.

Last week, the Biden administration renewed Trump-era efforts to assuage security concerns over TikTok, created by Chinese tech giant ByteDance Ltd., by demanding that the wildly popular app be sold Chinese-owned or face a potential US ban.

On Thursday, TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew was subjected to a bipartisan cross-examination by a House committee whose members asked pointed questions about data security, alleged racial bias toward content creators and the platform’s effects on mental health.

The Chinese government, which aims to turn local tech companies into world champions, has said it would oppose any sale of TikTok.

Here is where the dispute is.

How is China responding?

Hours before Chew began his testimony before the congressional committee on Thursday, Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesman Shu Jueting said China had resolutely opposed demands by US officials that TikTok be sold, adding that any change in ownership would need to comply with Chinese regulations.

A forced sale “will seriously damage the confidence of investors around the world, including China, to invest in the US,” Shu said.

On Chinese state and social media, commentators accused US lawmakers of making biased statements and questions at Chew’s hearing. Others dismissed the event as political theater or accused the US of trying to steal the technology that powers TikTok’s addictive short video recommendations.

Last week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the US has no evidence that TikTok is a threat to national security and that it should stop discriminating against foreign companies.

“China has always maintained that the issue of data security should not be used as a tool for certain countries to generalize the concept of national security and abuse state power to suppress companies of other countries without reason,” Wang said.

But some analysts question the lengths Beijing will go to protect TikTok. While the Chinese government has taken steps to prevent TikTok and its underlying technology from being sold without its approval, it is less concerned about a U.S. ban on the app, said Angela Zhang, director of the Center for Chinese Law at the University of Hong Kong.

“Banning TikTok can do little harm to China’s core national interest in becoming a technologically advanced country,” Zhang said. “TikTok will have to fight this battle on its own.”

Can the US force a sale or ban?

China’s declaration that it would obstruct a sale complicates any U.S. effort to strike a deal, particularly as Beijing has added export restrictions on domestic technology in 2020 that require government approval.

In the absence of divestment, the Biden administration may have little choice but to seek an outright ban on the app. The US has already banned TikTok from being downloaded and used on some government devices for national security reasons. This month, the White House endorsed a bill that would allow President Biden to ban the social media app.

The move renewed pressure dating back to 2020, when the Trump administration threatened to ban TikTok and WeChat, another popular Chinese app used for messaging and social communication. ByteDance explored a potential sale of an equity stake in TikTok to Oracle, which was never finalized. Attempts by then-President Trump to block the app a few years ago have also been challenged by federal courts.

That year, India banned more than 50 Chinese apps, including TikTok, following an escalation of border skirmishes and heightened concerns over Chinese military aggression. The governments of Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand have also limited TikTok on government-owned devices.

What’s the problem with TikTok?

According to TikTok, the app has around 150 million monthly active users in the US. But its widespread popularity has exacerbated suspicions among US officials that user data collected in the United States could be transferred and used for spying in China.

Republican and Democratic politicians in favor of selling or banning TikTok have cited concerns about the security of user data and whether that information could be acquired by the Chinese government. They also pointed to TikTok’s content moderation record, potential for spreading misinformation and harmful effects on youth, the app’s largest user base.

“To the American people watching today, listen to this: TikTok is a weapon of the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see, and exploit [it] for future generations,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said during Thursday’s hearing with TikTok CEO Chew.

Additionally, Chew, who is Singaporean, was asked about allegations of human rights abuses in China and espionage, based on a Forbes report that ByteDance planned to use TikTok to track the location of some US citizens.

In China, many US technology platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google have been banned as part of the country’s strict online censorship. Instead of TikTok, Chinese users have a sister version called Douyin, which is more strictly moderated than its foreign counterpart and limits the time young users can spend on the app.

Has TikTok addressed these concerns?

In his appearance before Congress, Chew rejected the notion that TikTok was a tool of the Chinese Communist Party or a threat to US national security.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. It’s a private company,” Chew said in his opening statement.

He assured the panel that TikTok would prioritize the safety of teens, protect US users’ data from unauthorized foreign access, guarantee freedom of expression, and provide access to independent monitors to ensure transparency.

Chew also highlighted the company’s proposal to mitigate concerns about Chinese government influence. He said the company had spent about $1.5 billion executing the plan, called Project Texas, which involves using cloud computing company Oracle to route and store US user data, giving the Austin, Texas-based company access to some of its technology.

“Under this structure, there is no way for the Chinese government to access it or enforce access to it,” he said.

But her five-hour testimony did little to assuage lawmakers’ doubts about the app.

David Shen of The Times’ Taipei bureau contributed to this report.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: