Author Sunshine Chen | Updated September 20th 2020
Ten years ago, American politicians would have embraced TikTok with open arms by American politicians. The app epitomizes the free speech and innovation that is weaved into the fabric of the American dream. Unlike the copy-cat enterprises that sprung up after China opened its doors to foreign trade, TikTok has become an original and dominating force rivaling big social media companies Facebook and Instagram. Yet the app has now become a petty political battleground between the two major superpowers, but is it really beneficial banning the app?
Fundamentally, Trump's executive order before election day is more about seeming tough on China than national security. However, even if national security breaches exist, let’s address the concerns one by one.
China has long aspired to become the world powerhouse economically. The cheap and abundant labor has created the perception that China is a manufacturing country that can successfully replicate western ideas and produce them at a cheaper price. Most of the successful tech industries were initially rip-offs of American companies. Baidu is the equivalent to Google, Alibaba is the counterpart to Amazon, Tencent can be viewed as a copy-cat of Facebook, Huawei is similar to Apple. None of these major companies have indeed dominated the entire world. As China struggles to expand its geo-political influence and begins exporting intellectual property instead of material goods, TikTok has become the sign of Chinese success on a global stage. It boasts an extensive base with 100 million users in the US alone. If the Chinese government does indeed demand TikTok to hand over crucial data and results in Western backlash, it not only inflicts damage on China’s economic aspirations as a global superpower. It incentives Chinese corporations to expand internationally and will likely mean more investors that are turned away. With China’s status as a global economic power on the line, it is unlikely to risk it for the data of some lip-syncing and dancing teenagers. Even if China does want to harvest data using Tiktok, it is unclear why they would want to use the app as a medium instead of using more undetectable means.
Let’s be clear, TikTok is a profit oriented company. It makes an estimate of about 8 billion in the first 6 months of 2019 in the US (that number is probably higher right now given the massive downloads during the pandemic). Handing over data to the Chinese government would probably cause permanent suspension in America and in all other Western countries. They lose out on an incredible amount of users and revenue.
Okay, so maybe TikTok and China have benign incentives, but do you have any evidence?
Zhang Yiming, the CEO and founder of Tiktok’s parent company, has stressed that TikTok will never give information to the Chinese authorities. “We have never received such a request … from the Chinese government, and we don’t think there will be such a request. Even if we get such a request, it is impossible” to comply.
In lieu of his words, he has actively tried to decouple the Chinese version of the app (抖音) from the American version of the app (TikTok). The U.S. management team has moved out of China and has been given almost complete autonomy to run the U.S. branch. It stores American data in Virgina and Singapore. TikTok has also hired Washington lobbyist Michael Beckerman to advocate for their interests in the congress, formed an advisory council, and employed Disney executive Kevin Mayer as the new COO and CEO. The chief information security officer and head of safety are also two Americans. Even before the proposed ban, they were thinking of moving some of their other data centers to Europe as well as selling a large stake to an American Company (probably Microsoft at this point). After China imposed a new security law in HongKong and stripped away a large majority of their autonomous rights, Tiktok stopped operating in the region. They released a statement and explained that We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; “TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.” Claims of TikTok giving data to the Chinese government are all claims that have not been backed with indisputable evidence.
But what if there is really a national security threat?
Even if people are worried about the security interests that China poses, banning Tiktok does not effectively solve it. The ban will likely only antagonize China and result in more malicious and rogue counterattacks. There are other ways to gather personal data (e.g. through hacking) that can be harder to prevent and detect.
National security is important to consider in international trade but a full blown war is much worse. This tit-for-tat ongoing conflict between the two superpowers will only escalate with the executive order. In the past 500 years, there have been 16 times where there were rising tensions between an emerging superpower and an established superpower. In 12 of these cases, war erupted. The four cases were only avoided because of “huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part of the challenger and challenged alike,” wrote Graham Allison, Founding Dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School. Banning TikTok pushes China to act more aggressively and may result in the escalation of a crisis.
Furthermore, taking a page from Beijing’s playbook and invoking censorship seems to be a terrible idea even for purposes of protecting national security. The United States has long been the bastion of openness and consumer choice. The country has long-prided itself for being open to anyone from anywhere with anything. Entrepreneurship, grit and talent have always been cherished and embraced in a country built by immigrants and the forces of capitalism. In the words of Michael Schuman, author of “Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World”, conforming to the authoritarianism methods by creating America’s own firewall “would mean Americans failed to find a middle path between preserving their values and protecting their security in the face of ever-changing technology.”
The internet was created to bring us together regardless of where we are from. Restricting access to certain websites and apps means dividing rather than uniting people. Schuman reiterates that “in the past, our competitive spirit drove us to build the greatest country in the history of the world. Today, it threatens to rip apart the world order.”