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CWA # 376, 22 November 2020

The TIKTOK Tango
Three reasons why the US wants to restrict, but China wants to promote it

  Sukanya Bali

China and the United State have undergone a dramatic shift in its tech diplomacy in the past one year. TikTok, an international version of Douyin was originally released in the Chinese market in September 2016. Later, after merging with Musical.ly, the app became popular worldwide as the second-most non-gaming downloaded app of 2019. However, in August 2020, when President Donald Trump announced the ban of the app in the country and gave the company an ultimatum till November 2020 for a deal, three questions remain. Why the US looks at the TikTok as a threat?  Why China is keen on promoting the app. Lastly, what is the fear around tech diplomacy in the world?

Why the US sees TikTok as a threat? It is national security, Presidential elections and geopolitics

First, the US President Donald Trump has called TikTok, a national security threat. He blamed the app for the breach of privacy and data collection, of users including the Chinese citizens abroad. The US claims the app curtails free speech and censors’ videos based on events like Tiananmen Square, Falgun Gong, and any protests against the Chinese sovereignty. The videos are banned under two categories, “violence” and “visible to self.” 

Through TikTok, the parent company ByteDance could access user information that can further be delivered to the Chinese intelligence services as per Beijing domestic law. In February 2019, ByteDance was fined 5.7 million dollars by the US Federal Trade Commission over an illegal collection of personal information from minors. The US senator Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton in October 2019 raised concern over the Army personnel using TikTok to recruit. They also said, with over 110 million downloads in the US alone, TikTok is a potential counter-intelligence threat that cannot be ignored.

Second, TikTok becomes political for the US election. The US claims, the app provides a channel for secret harvesting against the government, which may further generate disinformation particularly targeting young voters for the upcoming November election. TikTok, in the run-up to the US election, became a platform for ideological formation, political activism and trolling. Through Tiktok ‘hypehouses’, teenagers were campaigning and forming a party-based coalition. In June, thousands of TikTok users and Korean pop music fan groups claimed to have booked tickets as a prank against Trump's campaign in Okla. President Trump said, if the TikTok deal is not done before 12 November, the app will be banned in the country.

Third, the core of bilateral relation between China and the US is their economic ties. With TikTok, now the economic relation has become a geopolitical tension between the two. Over 100 million are daily users of TikTok in the US and competition for other social platforms, like Facebook and Twitter have hence rapidly increased. TikTok is also venturing into a socio-eCommerce platform which may draw more eMarketer to use the Chinese app.

According to the US news agency, China ranks second in the technological expertise and 15 in best countries overall ranking, whereas the US ranks four in technological expertise and seventh in best countries list. The ranking is based on core innovation, technological expertise incorporating both skills and knowledge. Initiative involving from 5G network to cloud service to undersea cables has impacted the geopolitics between the two. 

Why China is keen to promote TikTok?

It is foreign policy, geoeconomics and aspiring tech giant

First, TikTok is a tool for the country’s foreign policy agenda. China seeks in building relationships across countries by using technology, to project its positive global image. ByteDance claims the app formulates its policy through a ‘local approach’, after consulting local committees. TikTok is presently active in 155 countries with 75 different languages with an estimated 700 million active users, as the biggest player in the social media sphere uniting millions of young users. 

Second, the economic agenda. The revenue of ByteDance in the first quarter accounted for 5.6 billion dollars year-on-year. TikTok earned about 200 to 300 million dollars from global advertising in 2019 and was expecting to earn 500 million dollars from the US alone this year. According to the Bloomberg economic report, China has more to lose given the need for its modern technological development, if economic ties between the US and China break off.

The 60 per cent of exportable English content on TikTok is generated through the US users. Since the announcement of the ban, there has been a drop of about 500,000 daily active users. Subsequently, if the US bans the app by November, TikTok's global market share will substantially reduce. China would be keen on safeguarding its position as the fourth most downloaded app in the world. With countries opting to reduce their economic reliance on Beijing, TikTok tries to attract nations towards it. 

Third, China prioritized its tech industry, making it a focal point of economic reform. TikTok which is developed with a unique algorithm is known for its user-generated short popular video for 15 to 60 seconds, featuring dance, parodies with filters, and special effects. Technonationalism with Chinese characteristics, result in formulating a comprehensive and long-term industrial policy to develop internationally competitive domestic firms, which has made countries dependent on China’s technological expertise.

Fear revolves around tech diplomacy

Despite a potential deal between TikTok and Oracle and Walmart, some serious concern persists.

First, the issue of transparency. Even before the Trump administration in the US, there have been concerns over the lack of transparency from Chinese companies. The US Intelligence departments have suggested the possibility of espionage by state-backed Chinese companies. In response, the Trump administration has called for decoupling the US economy from China. Subsequently banning Huawei and ZTE from the US 5G market. Second, the fear of reliability. Tech is being used as a political-diplomatic tool, as nations that have typically led the tech industries are becoming wary of the possibility of its misuse in the hand of China. The US accusation of the Chinese app over the security concern has raised skepticism in many nations like Australia and New Zealand.  Last, technonationalism is pushing countries towards a protectionist model where a nation’s tech capabilities impact national security, economic success and social stability.

Sukanya Bali is a Project Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies

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