A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 24, 2024

Why China's Paranoid Authoritarianism Is the Real Culprit In TikTok's Demise

The real concern about TikTok is that no Chinese entity is free from Chinese government control. So if the military or spy services demand data, TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, has to hand it over - or face being dismantled. 

These fears are not unfounded, especially since China doesn't even permit its own citizens to use the same TikTok as foreigners, presumably fearing it could undermine state control. So as long as China remains paranoid and hostile to outside influences, its businesses will be viewed with suspicion in the west. JL 

Michael Schuman reports in The Atlantic:

TikTok (could have been) a goodwill ambassador for China’s rise, (but) was cut off at the knees by the hard realities of Chinese authoritarianism. The core of US concern about TikTok are the data it collects on American citizens. The fear is these data end up in the Chinese security state. If the Chinese military demands ByteDance fork over the contents of its databases, could the company say no? The Chinese Communist Party is the true culprit here. US concerns about TikTok have nothing to do with TikTok and everything to do with how the authoritarian government in Beijing runs its economy, society, and legal system. What lawmakers in Washington are really saying is they have so little trust in Beijing that they consider it too dangerous to allow American teenagers on a Chinese app.

By all rights, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, should be one of the world’s most respected companies. The technology start-up has created an innovative social-media platform with global appeal—an achievement that puts ByteDance in the elite ranks of Facebook and X.

There’s a single reason the company doesn’t get that respect: It’s Chinese.

On March 13, the House of Representatives passed a bill with unusually wide bipartisan support that will ban TikTok from the United States unless ByteDance divests its stake in the short-video app to a non-Chinese investor. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo recently said she supports the legislation, adding that “TikTok presents serious national-security risks to the people of the United States.”


The bill still needs to clear the Senate, but if it does, TikTok will most likely be barred from the world’s largest economy. The Chinese government has already signaled that it will oppose a forced sale of TikTok, apparently out of concern that its technology will fall into foreign hands.

That’s tragic, not only for TikTok’s millions of avid American fans, but also for the greater cause of innovation and free enterprise. Both Beijing and Washington are sacrificing what could be tremendous, mutual economic gain to geopolitical competition and security jitters.

The Chinese government’s drive for control and self-reliance has intensified in recent years, but the long-term pattern is consistent: Beijing has always clogged free markets to protect its political interests and promote its own corporate champions. The United States, however, has taken a turn, and the TikTok ban is representative.

The business of America is supposed to be business, but now Washington is adding a corollary: except if you’re Chinese. President Joe Biden’s administration is looking to replace Chinese-made cranes in American ports, also over security concerns. Last year, Ford announced a plan to manufacture electric-vehicle batteries in a new Michigan factory using Chinese technology, raising a storm of protest from lawmakers fearful that the deal would bolster China’s position in a key industry.

Paranoid politicians in Washington, obsessed with the threat from China, would be all too easy to blame. But the Chinese Communist Party is the true culprit here. The concerns about TikTok ultimately have almost nothing to do with TikTok and just about everything to do with how the authoritarian government in Beijing runs its economy, society, and legal system. From that, ByteDance has no escape.

The core of the concern about TikTok are the data it collects on American citizens. The fear in Washington is that these data could end up in the hands of the Chinese security state. If the Chinese spy agency or military demands that ByteDance fork over the ample contents of its databases, could the company say no?

ByteDance’s founder, Zhang Yiming, told me point-blank in 2020 that “even if we get such a request, it is impossible” for management to comply. I’m confident that he meant what he said: ByteDance executives are surely aware that their business would face catastrophic consequences if it were ever caught funneling private data from the United States to the Chinese government.

But the pledge is not one he can really make. ByteDance operates in an environment without the rule of law. Government authorities can cry “national security” and essentially do what they please. ByteDance’s executives have little latitude to resist a government demand for data—at least not without placing their business and themselves in grave peril. That’s why none of the hearings, promises, and lobbying—not even ByteDance’s attempt to ring-fence U.S. user data—can assuage Washington’s fears.

Those fears aren’t unreasonable. The Chinese government wants data on Americans and has already gone looking for them. Chinese hackers, for instance, have stolen data on U.S. citizens from the credit-reporting agency Equifax and the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management in the past. Why, then, would Chinese authorities not be tempted by whatever tasty tidbits might be stored in TikTok’s vaults?

Nor can ByteDance really alleviate another major concern in Washington: that the platform could be used to spread pro-China propaganda and manipulate American public opinion. Chinese authorities could lean on ByteDance to act as a tool in its campaign to shape perceptions of China and to promote the Communist Party’s values, ideas, and narratives around the world.

Banning TikTok won’t completely solve these problems. American internet giants store tons of U.S. user data: If Chinese agents want some data, they can just hack Facebook. The Chinese state has also mobilized plenty of other tools—including, again, American social-media platforms—in its global disinformation campaign.

What lawmakers in Washington are really saying is that they have so little trust in Beijing that they consider it too dangerous to allow American teenagers to lip-synch in bikinis on a Chinese app. And, if anything, what little trust remains is rapidly evaporating.

The tone of U.S.-China relations softened after Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a long summit in November, but Xi has continued to keep Washington on guard. Whether by strengthening the language regarding unification with Taiwan by excluding the commonly used descriptor peaceful from the government’s latest annual work report in March, or by refusing to cooperate with Washington on the Houthi crisis in the Red Sea,  Beijing is hardly signaling its good faith.

TikTok’s managers haven’t helped themselves, either. Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s chief executive officer, tried to pretend that the company wasn’t Chinese—describing it instead as a global company headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles—in his congressional testimony last year, a feeble dodge that undermined his credibility. During the debates over the House bill, TikTok mobilized its users to lobby lawmakers against the ban, then criticized the politicians for not listening. “Members of Congress are complaining about hearing from their constituents? Respectfully, isn’t that their job?” the company posted on X.

A Chinese company lecturing Americans on the nature of democracy is not a good look. Neither is the hypocrisy of the Chinese government. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry recently criticized Washington’s stance on TikTok as “clearly a bullying act and robbers’ logic.” But onerous regulation and censorship block nearly all major American internet and media companies from operating in China. The Chinese government would never allow a foreign company to offer a service like TikTok’s in China. Wait, check that: Beijing won’t permit its citizens to operate a Chinese app of that nature, either. ByteDance doesn’t let Chinese customers onto TikTok and instead provides a separate sister platform called Douyin.

Chinese authorities appear to prefer the propaganda value of criticizing Washington to offering up any assurances to save TikTok. They should care much more about its fate. A big part of American global power is of the soft variety. The world posts on Facebook and Instagram; relatively few outside of China use WeChat or Weibo. TikTok was the exception—a potential goodwill ambassador for China’s rise, cut off at the knees by the hard realities of Chinese authoritarianism.


Billie said...

While China's authoritarian governance geometry dash style may contribute to these challenges, it's essential to examine the broader context to understand the situation fully.

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