Donald Trump was in no mood to compromise. “As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States,” he told a gaggle of reporters huddled in an aisle on Air Force One on a Friday evening in late July. Trump seemed impatient as he headed back to Washington after a day of fundraising in Florida, straining to act against a company he claimed was a grave national security threat. When would a ban happen, one journalist asked? “Essentially immediately,” he shot back. “I will sign the document tomorrow.”
Trump’s announcement capped a tough week for TikTok. A few days earlier, the company’s recently-appointed American chief executive Kevin Mayer had launched a forceful public defence of the short-video app, which was facing a maelstrom of accusations over its ties to China, owing to its Chinese parent company ByteDance. In an open letter, Mayer said that TikTok was committed to transparency and accountability, and painted the app as a boon to US competition at a time of growing focus on the monopoly powers of companies like Facebook.
“TikTok has become the latest target, but we are not the enemy,” he wrote.
Washington wasn’t buying it. For the best part of a year, a growing band of political China hawks had agitated against TikTok, raising questions about the data it held on its 100 million monthly active users in the US. Senator Marco Rubio, one major critic, told WIRED that TikTok’s close ties to ByteDance open the door to China’s security state. “TikTok could allow the Chinese Communist Party access to millions of Americans’ information, including IP addresses, browsing history and more,” he says. (TikTok says that the data it collects is industry standard, and that it has never shared user data with the Chinese government, nor would it.)
Then there were the politics. Trump had spent much of his presidency attacking Huawei, hitting the Chinese telecoms equipment maker with repeated restrictions and pushing other countries to ban it from 5G networks. But as that crusade ran its course, and facing a re-election battle, TikTok offered a new way for Trump to showcase his tough line on China by attacking perhaps the only truly global consumer technology brand yet built by a Chinese company.
After touching down in Washington, Trump signed an executive order that gave ByteDance 45 days to hash out a deal to sell its US operations to an American company. In the days that followed, the US president also pressed forward with new measures cracking down on other tech groups linked to China, including an executive order banning the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, while dropping hints that others like Alibaba were also in his sights.
Whether a deal ultimately happens or falls apart, the battle over TikTok provides a moment of clarity for the future of Sino-American relations at a time of rapid, disorderly technological decoupling, posing two important questions. How exactly did Generation Z’s favourite jocular videos app come to spook Washington’s anti-Chinese security establishment? And what do TikTok’s travails tell us about the future of a global technology ecosystem dominated by giant American and Chinese companies, as it suddenly splinters into two?
At one level, TikTok faces narrow accusations about privacy and data, and whether its users’ information is at risk of being transferred to China. Regardless to what extent that security argument holds water (and many expert analysts have their doubts), the company also makes an ideal new front in a far wider battle, in which the US’s techno-nationalists view China and its internet giants as both a technological and civilisational threat, and aim to make dramatically curbing their powers a central front in a bubbling new Cold War. As they do so, the main casualty may not just be the international plans of apps like TikTok or companies like ByteDance, but the dream of an open global internet itself.
The idea that the United States might ban TikTok first took hold not in Washington, but in New Delhi. In June, 20 Indian soldiers died high in the Himalayan mountains after a series of bloody border skirmishes with Chinese forces. Scouting around for a way to respond, Prime Minister Narendra Modi alighted on his country’s growing dependence on Chinese consumer technology and signed an order banning TikTok and 58 other China-linked apps, citing threats to national security. The move brought a handful of minor protests from the app’s 120 million monthly active Indian users, but came at little political cost. Washington’s China hawks took notice.
Before the ban, India was TikTok’s largest market by users, but the US remained its most important, given its reliance on advertising from large American companies. TikTok originally launched in 2017, but really took off after ByteDance acquired Musical.ly, a US-based social media app popular with lip-syncing American teenagers, in 2018. Back then, ByteDance was a minor player in China’s burgeoning internet scene with just one hit product: Toutiao, a social news aggregator. But following Alibaba and Tencent, the company already had its sights set abroad. ByteDance merged Musical.ly into two short-video apps: Douyin, for users in China, and TikTok, for those outside of China, including the US. (TikTok still does not operate in China).
Over the next two years TikTok went on a tear, attracting tens of millions of American teens and spawning a culture of youthful, YouTube-style influencers to entertain them. The app was seamless and fiendishly addictive, leaving users scrolling for hours. “ByteDance and TikTok are just great at product development on mobile,” says Jeffrey Towson, a professor at Peking University in Beijing. “If you are looking at the epicentre of mobile app innovation, it’s China and companies like ByteDance. They make Silicon Valley look lethargic.”
Aggressive marketing helped ByteDance’s US push, as the company funnelled in cash from its lucrative Chinese operations. By the start of 2020 it had built arguably the first social media app with a shot at threatening Facebook and Instagram – and done so partly by advertising on Facebook’s own platforms. But most important of all was TikTok’s technology. Rather than the social connections underpinning its rivals, the app is powered by relentless algorithmic logic. Any user is free to record their own stuff, but the vast majority of what they see comes via the algorithm, which churns out a moreish diet of singing, dancing, slapstick comedy and teenage in-jokes digitally tailored to grip viewers whether they happen to be in New York or New Delhi.
TikTok views itself as a happy corner of the internet, without the bile of Twitter or scandals of Facebook; a place where “hundreds of millions of people come for entertainment and connection, bringing joy,” as Zhang Yiming, ByteDance’s 37-year old founder, wrote in a recent letter to his staff. But it attracted its fair share of controversy from the start, too, much of it linked to its youthful audience. In 2019, US regulators fined it for failing to protect the privacy of users under 13. There were minor scandals about adult video stars and sexual predators. In conservative places like Turkey it got into trouble for transgressing moral codes. Liberal countries like the US accused it of being excessively censorious.
Then a new problem emerged: China. Content moderation guidelines leaked to The Guardian newspaper suggested the app had hidden videos on topics that transgressed Chinese censorship rules, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to Tibet. (TikTok says it has since changed its moderation guidelines, and that it does not moderate content based on political sensitivities.) In November 2019, Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old American, won fleeting fame with a seemingly innocuous TikTok makeup tutorial that cleverly morphed into a monologue about China’s Uighur internment camps in Xinjiang – only to find her profile temporarily blocked, albeit in what TikTok said was for an unrelated breach of its rules.
Concerns over TikTok partly reflected a longer-term geopolitical shift dating back to before Trump arrived in the White House, as US policymakers abandoned the hope that Chinese economic development would bring political liberalisation and began to view Beijing as a threat. Well before Huawei hit the front pages, US anxiety about China had a strong technological dimension, as analysts blamed China for cyberattacks against US targets, most prominently the government Office of Personnel Management in 2015 and Equifax, a credit reporting agency, in 2017.
Once it began to take shape, the case against TikTok moved with astonishing speed. Formally, the US Treasury began an investigation in October 2019, examining whether ByteDance’s Musical.ly deal should be unwound, on the technicality that neither party had told it of national security issues at the time the deal was made. Zhang tried to answer critics, hiring Mayer from Disney to become CEO in early 2020 and promising to ringfence the TikTok app from ByteDance to deflect allegations of Chinese interference. But as the year progressed, and the Covid-19 pandemic brought a further deterioration in US-China ties, the ByteDance founder also began frantic behind-the-scenes discussions for an emergency sale of its US operations, conducting talks with companies including Microsoft, Walmart, Oracle and Twitter.
Although little-known outside of China prior to TikTok’s difficulties, Zhang had won admirers at home for his aggressive instincts and informal management style. “[ByteDance is] an incredibly dynamic and tough environment,” says author and China analyst Duncan Clark. “Zhang doesn’t suffer fools or mediocrity.” Although educated in China, he modelled himself on US tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. “He speaks in halting English – he brought an interpreter with him and was very apologetic about it,” one early international employee recalls of meeting him for dinner in Beijing. “But he was humble, and asked lots of questions. He is an engineer at heart.” Where employees at other Chinese companies often refer to one another formally by title, Zhang insists on first names.
Nor was Zhang an obvious Chinese regime loyalist: in a recent interview in The Atlantic he told the reporter he was not a Communist party member. As Zhang worked to save TikTok, he certainly attracted ire from both sides: barracked on Chinese social media for failing to stand up to American bullying and assailed in Washington as a pawn of Beijing. In early July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked if Americans should download the TikTok app. “Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party,” he replied. Not long after, Trump’s re-election campaign began running adverts pushing a petition to ban the app, saying simply: “TIKTOK IS SPYING ON YOU”.
Data problems are one of two big accusations levelled against the app. “TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information,” Trump’s executive order claims, “potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”
Critics suggest data, such as location details and records of the people who appear in videos, could be shared first with ByteDance, and then Chinese authorities. ByteDance and TikTok deny this. “There is a lot of misinformation about TikTok out there, but these are the facts: the TikTok app does not operate in China,” a TikTok spokesperson told WIRED. “TikTok user data is stored in the US and Singapore, with strict controls on employee access. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked, and we do not moderate content based on political sensitivities. Claims to the contrary of these facts are false.”
Even so, TikTok has never been able to shake the suspicion that it could be forced to hand over data. Although the app operates only outside China, its development was closely linked to its Chinese parent, with its algorithm developed by teams of software engineers in Beijing or Shanghai. In 2018, Zhang Yiming was forced to issue a public apology when one of his Chinese apps was found to have offended state officials. “Technology must be guided by core socialist values,” he wrote in a public letter of self-criticism.
Most important of all is China’s 2017 National Security Law, which requires any Chinese company to “assist and co-operate with the state intelligence work”. Critics suggest this means TikTok data could in theory be commandeered to target US citizens, and potentially even combined with other clandestine information allegedly taken by Chinese authorities, such as that gleaned from the Office of Public Management hack. “As I see the cyber warfare landscape, America’s concern is a valid concern,” says Oded Vanunu, an Israeli cybersecurity expert who has studied TikTok’s data policies.
Similar worries lay behind the US government’s decision to reverse the sale of gay dating app Grindr to a Chinese gaming company in 2019 – namely that data on sexuality or compromising pictures could be used by Chinese spies to blackmail Americans. Even the possibility of something similar provides grounds to act, one anonymous Capitol Hill researcher working on TikTok tells WIRED. “Frankly, TikTok terrifies me. I would definitely place it on par with Huawei,” they say. “It’s obvious to me what this company [ByteDance] is going to do if the Ministry of State Security comes knocking.”
A second major concern levelled at TikTok is Chinese political interference. In June, President Trump endured public humiliation at a post-Covid comeback rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, speaking to a half-empty stadium when his campaign expected a packed house. It emerged that thousands of liberal-minded internet users demanded tickets with no intention of showing up, many organising using TikTok videos. Trump’s embarrassment alarmed TikTok critics, inviting other scenarios where the platform could be manipulated in the run-up to an election. “TikTok could give the CCP the capability to do all sorts of fine-grained targeting, at a level Russia in 2016 could not have dreamt of,” the Congressional researcher says, referring to theoretical potential political interference scenarios in which TikTok could be forced to hand over data on particular groups of users, and potentially to target messages at those users as well – but there is no evidence that TikTok or ByteDance have done this or been asked to do so, which Zhang also told The Altlantic.
There are problems with these various scenarios, of course, beginning with how likely they are. China’s security state has hacked plenty of US public agencies and stolen corporate secrets, but there is little evidence that it uses stolen data to blackmail Americans, or indulges in Russian-style political meddling. Even were it to do so, the risks should be manageable, suggests Paul Triolo, head of geo-technology at consultants Eurasia Group. The threat posed by TikTok is much lower than that by a company like Huawei, he says, with its deep links in core technological networks. Australia said it found no evidence to justify a ban. “On data privacy this is mostly a red herring,” Triolo says. “I don’t buy the national security argument.”
Then there is the general incoherence of Trump’s technology policymaking. In a statement responding to Trump’s executive order, TikTok wrote: “The Administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses.” Within Trump’s team, business-friendly figures such as Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin worried that an outright ban could dent confidence in US technology regulation. Outside it, critics like Samm Sacks, a cybersecurity fellow at think tank New America, argue that the US is playing “whack-a-mole” rather than building a comprehensive approach to managing Chinese technology risks. “This is akin to the state-coerced nationalisation of a private company. And in the US, that is a big and worrying deal,” she says.
Clearly other forces are at play. A desire for reciprocity is one, given so many US tech platforms are banned in China (although not Microsoft, one of TikTok’s suitors). “You can’t say this is about the US decoupling. This is us dealing with decisions China made to decouple,” says another Congressional official working on TikTok. “We are finally having the debate China had two decades ago, when it put in the Great Firewall because it found foreign technology threatening its political system. Only now is America catching up with foreign technology that is a direct threat to our open system.”
Viewed from China, TikTok’s fate is simpler to explain: the US is hobbling rival tech companies to contain China’s rise. “China tech people are pissed off by this,” says Gang Lu, Shanghai-based founder of media group TechNode. “People think TikTok is trying to find a solution, but the US government doesn’t want that.” ByteDance founder Zhang has certainly tried. Prior to Covid, he hired more executives and worked with lobbyists to press the company’s case in Washington. As the pandemic struck, making travel impossible, he worked on US time in Beijing to allow for video calls with US regulators and politicians. His team moved quickly in other ways too, not least with its rapid decision to exit Hong Kong in July, after China pushed through a new national security law – an attempt to reassure US lawmakers that TikTok was serious about avoiding interference from Beijing. “Our response teams have been working around-the-clock,” Zhang wrote in a memo to ByteDance staff in early August.
Reports suggested TikTok’s suitors could spend as much as $30bn to take over the app’s operations in the US and a handful of other countries, or potentially its entire international operations. The dealmaking process has been tumultuous. In August, TikTok announced it was suing the US government, claiming that the executive order to ban it ignored due process. Just days later, TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer resigned. In September, China introduced new rules which placed algorithms like TikTok’s on a list of items which could not be sold without official state permission, raising doubts about whether an overall sale could go ahead at all. In mid-September, Microsoft said that ByteDance had rejected its proposal, leaving Oracle as the frontrunner – although the nature of that deal remains unclear at time of publication.
Whatever TikTok’s fate, the result will be a blow for ByteDance’s ambitions. Prior to its run-in with the US, Zhang had been planning an IPO for ByteDance, at a reported valuation north of $100bn. That valuation will now be diminished, and Zhang’s dreams of building China’s first global internet giant along with them.
The implications of the battle for TikTok now extend far beyond ByteDance to other China-linked tech companies. WeChat is the first casualty, following Trump’s executive order. Given Tencent’s app dominates online communication in China, it could potentially stop US companies in China using some functions on the app. Google and Apple may have to restrict its download, driving a further wedge between US and Chinese tech ecosystems. Few would bet against more restrictions on companies with links to China, from the cloud computing arms of Alibaba and Tencent, to drone-maker DJI and smartphone maker Xiaomi.
Other nations are yet to follow America’s lead in acting against TikTok, yet with Huawei, the likes of the UK have gradually come round to Washington’s point of view. More international restrictions against Chinese tech players could easily follow. Much also depends on China’s behaviour, for instance whether it responds by targeting US companies with big Chinese operations, such as Apple or Intel. Chinese foreign policy matters too. The US campaign against TikTok came into sharper focus in the aftermath of a slew of assertive Chinese actions in India and Hong Kong. Entrepreneurs like Zhang find themselves caught between a Trump administration on the warpath, and a Chinese government whose foreign policies are busily undermining trust in its own national technology champions.
On the surface, things might look better for American big tech. Facebook may now face one less major competitor. In August, founder Mark Zuckerberg launched Instagram Reels to compete with TikTok, to generally poor reviews. “Having TikTok banned is a good thing for business, at least in the short run,” says Matt Perault, director of the Center on Science & Technology Policy at Duke University and a former policy director at Facebook. “But I think it’s a troubling precedent for US tech companies, who will have to deal with more inconsistent and arbitrary regulation in future.” Trump’s actions will certainly make it harder for Chinese tech companies to break into the US market. But they are likely to make it harder for US companies to grow abroad too, as other countries, like India, begin to copy the kind of broad national security rules Trump has pushed, and to protect their own tech national champions.
Nor is Trump’s crusade likely to end with apps like TikTok. “Beyond consumer apps, the world needs to be wary of the companies and technologies integrated into China’s evolving mass surveillance apparatus and Military-Civil Fusion strategy,” says Marco Rubio. Networks like BeiDou, China’s GPS equivalent, are one threat, he suggests, providing Beijing with “political and economic leverage” over countries using Chinese technology. China’s investment in areas like biotech and AI pose another. “The Chinese are reorganising their technology ecosystem to harness emerging technologies to ensure the Communist Party’s dominance at home and abroad,” Rubio claims.
All this points toward a rapid splintering of links forged over many decades between Chinese and US entrepreneurs, most notably in Silicon Valley “There is a big Chinese network here, of students, engineers, people who came to study,” says Yao Zhang, the Chinese-born founder of RoboTerra, an educational robotics company with operations in both California and China. “We all see the advantages of Silicon Valley, but will others from China now be able to come in future?” Her concern is shared by plenty of others. “I have high school friends [in China] who I haven’t seen for 20 years reaching out to me now,” says one Chinese tech investor living in Silicon Valley. “People ask me: ‘Will you come home? Are you safe?’ People at home now think Americans see China as the enemy.”
Those hoping a Biden presidency might chart a changed course are likely to be disappointed, too. “My sense is that Biden would take a more targeted approach, with less willy-nilly targeting all Chinese tech companies,” says Sack, of New America. But Biden will be tough on China. And even if he did want to change paths, he may find his hands tied, given the way Trump’s team has spent months rolling out new anti-China policies to bind any potential successors, including a new and hastily cobbled-together “Clean Network” programme compared by some to China’s own Great Firewall, which aims to bar Chinese companies from tech infrastructure such as telecoms networks and undersea internet cables.
Just over a decade ago, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech committing the US to an agenda of “internet freedom”. The philosophy it embodied, Perault suggests, saw the threats from new technology, but many benefits too, from promoting free expression to limiting censorship and encouraging innovation. Barely ten years later and the internet looks like a much darker place. Those who back tough action against companies like TikTok see themselves as the true inheritors of that agenda for technological freedom, striking a blow by pushing back against Chinese authoritarianism. Yet even they admit that in a world of deepening geo-political battles, the internet as a whole is likely to grow deeply divided with far greater state intervention, both in the US and elsewhere. “There will be significantly more tolerance of constraints on how technology is run,” Perault says. For all the levity of its video clips, TikTok’s fate provides a darker hint of the tech world to come.
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