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TikTok and WeChat: Threats or Scapegoats?

Tensions between the United States and China, fueled by a combination of American enmity towards the global rise of China, President Trump’s years-long trade war, and most recently, the Coronavirus pandemic, are higher than they have been for decades. An explicit antagonism towards the People’s Republic of China dominates the recent political landscape and Trump’s campaign messaging. Most recently, Trump took the unprecedented step of threatening to ban not just any foreign-owned social media network, but two of the most popular social media platforms in the world: TikTok and WeChat. 

Trump has had no qualms with capitalizing on such opportunities to divert negative attention from himself onto China, evident through his own rebranding of COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” or the “Wuhan Virus”. After receiving much blame for a record of repeatedly downplaying the severity of the pandemic and for slowing national mobilization in taking preventative actions against the virus, Trump, as the holder of the most powerful position in the country, has few people left to blame in America. As a result, he has turned his eyes abroad and found the perfect scapegoat in China, a country that many Americans already have reservations towards due to its threat to American hegemony as well as the first home of the Coronavirus. This is especially appealing for his base, which tends to hold much stronger nationalist views and more fervent anti-China beliefs. Trump is thus directly amplifying attention onto foreign apps like TikTok and WeChat in order to direct negative attention away from himself.

TikTok, a video-sharing social networking platform that features short sub-minute videos, is the 7th most popular social media platform in the world with over 800 million monthly active users, 100 million of whom live in the United States. This works out to just short of every third American being a monthly active TikTok user. WeChat is even more popular, albeit primarily in China, boasting an impressive 1.2 billion monthly active users and making it the 5th most popular social media globally. It has about 19 million daily active users in the United States. TikTok is, while WeChat is a multi-purpose social media, payment, and messaging app used by almost everyone in China.

The TikTok and WeChat bans appear to be yet another step in Trump’s attempt to divert negative attention from himself onto China. The Trump Administration uses “national security concerns” to justify their threats and argues the apps collect users’ personal information in ways the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could potentially exploit to “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the US”.

For all of TikTok’s purported “threat to the American economy,” what the argument itself suggests is dubious. TikTok is not requesting any policy accommodations or benefits from the US government that could hurt other industries’ areas, and countless American businesses advertise on TikTok to their mutual benefit. Although the argument is unclear, Trump’s messaging behind it is not: to him and his supporters, this issue is about restoring strength to American-owned businesses, securing the dominance of American-owned media and social media platforms, and raising America’s economy beyond those of other nations. 

The validity of the “national security threat” claim is just as questionable. TikTok, per its privacy policy and backed up by third-party news sites, primarily tracks user behavior within the app, such as which videos are watched or clicked on, alongside other details including location and phone model. Such data tracking is standard in the social media world—in fact, TikTok, unlike Instagram and Facebook, allows users to watch videos without first creating an account, which would mean none of their information is collected whatsoever. Additionally, companies like Google and Facebook are likely to collect far more user information than TikTok because of their wider range of products and services. In fact, Google and Facebook have the means and motivation to track their users offline, generally through monitoring spending behavior even after the user leaves the platform. 

What distinguishes TikTok is the privacy laws in its home country of China—a nation whose social and political culture is far less concerned with data privacy than that in the United States. It is common for the CCP to involve themselves in large Chinese-based corporations and even ask for data and information from these companies. This is, in fact, what occurs with WeChat, which is heavily regulated by government officials and allows the Party to censor messages and users if they violate Party notions of national security. As far as researchers have ascertained, the censorship does not apply to non-Chinese citizens, but the surveillance exists for all users regardless. 

The Trump Administration’s argument for the threatened ban on TikTok is that the CCP may be able to obtain data from ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, on hundreds of millions of Americans to use for an alleged nefarious project that would threaten American safety. It is well known within China that the government surveils information on the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, which exists as a regional app only users in China have access to and for which is the only version of the service they can access, as international TikTok is not available in the country. However, after months of investigations, there has been no unearthed evidence whatsoever that the CCP similarly tracks data on the international version of the app. Theo Bertram, a spokesperson for TikTok, vehemently denied all such allegations, stating “the suggestion that we are in any way under the thumb of the Chinese government is completely and utterly false,” and adding if the CCP requested TikTok’s data on its users, they would “definitely say no to any request.” 

The outlook seems to suggest, for all its data-tracking within China, the version of TikTok used in America is no more useful to the Chinese government or insidious to user privacy than services provided by far larger companies like Facebook and Google. Lacking the backing to support their stance, the Trump administration’s claims are misleading and deceptive rather than informative and protective. Without a legitimate national reason to take on these platforms, it becomes increasingly clear Trump continues to attack them only as indirect “scapegoats” to all the negative attention he has and continues to receive.

However, none of these points have deterred Trump, who offered to let TikTok remain in place if sold to American companies, and are further reflective of his “America First” approach and xenophobia. ByteDance shareholders, not wanting to lose a significant portion of its commercial user base, hastened to reach a deal with a large American tech firm. For a few weeks, Microsoft seemed to be the most likely candidate for the deal, but negotiations fell through and their bid was ultimately rejected in favor of a partnership between Walmart and Oracle. Details surrounding the final deal are murky at best and largely undecided, but sources seem to point to Oracle and Walmart claiming joint 20 percent ownership in a new “TikTok Global” company. Oracle would act as the host for all US user data that runs on the platform, and four out of five of the new company’s board members would be American. Interestingly, this all seems to suggest that ByteDance would still be the major stakeholder in TikTok Global, holding 80 percent of the shares before the company goes public, but Oracle executives have offered contradicting statements about ByteDance ownership over the new company.

As the deal continues to pan out, many suspect the attention given by Trump to platforms like TikTok and WeChat has been heightened only because the country is getting ever closer to Election Day. His ardent supporters tend to hold strong nationalist views that necessitate an unfavorable view of China, the country’s top competitor in the global economic and political arena, and these views can and do in turn strengthen Trump’s own political hold as polls look increasingly gloomy for him. As Trump’s own political future is thrown into uncertainty by the November election, how the TikTok deal plays out and what will ultimately happen to WeChat in the United States will both be unclear until after November 3rd. Regardless of the outcome, the reverberations of these antagonistic policies in the future of US-China foreign policy will help define decades of coming relations.

Photo: Image via Unsplash (Robin Worrall)