In early August of this year, Trump issued two executive orders banning U.S. transactions with, as well as the usage of, TikTok and WeChat in the U.S. Although he later gave TikTok a chance to survive by stating that a deal with an American buyer can salvage the situation, he made sure that they were direct threats communicated with strong underlying reasons relating to national security and measures to protect American citizens from Chinese propaganda. However, after unpacking misinformation such as data security from his reasoning, it is clear that there are other forces at play. What is an even uglier truth is that even the action of announcing such autocratic actions against Chinese apps means the U.S. is one step closer to being on similar ground to China, and that it is a dangerous precedent not in line with democracy. As well as ironically harming American businesses in the process, it also increases China’s global digital influence in other parts of the world, indirectly helping China’s agenda as opposed to Trump’s wishes.
The issue of national security, although valid, is questionable. Not only has the White House yet to release robust evidence that data of U.S. citizens are at risk of being accessed by the CCP, the assumption that data within American borders will solve the risk of being examined by China is not true. Data within American borders are extremely vulnerable even outside of a Chinese app: the information of 21 million Americans were stolen by China from the federal Office of Personnel Management in 2015, and records of 145 million Americans were accessed by the Chinese military in 2017 from the U.S. credit bureau Equifax. This only speaks to how selling the app to an American company for the purposes of keeping data within the country is simply a naive solution to enact. The fact that action was only taken now against the backdrop of COVID-19, when the potential dangers of Chinese technology have been circulating for years, only speaks of an ongoing tactic to reinforce sinophobic sentiments with motivations in line with the upcoming election. Moreover, the revelation that Trump insisted on the U.S. Treasury gaining a piece of the sale of TikTok hints that there are advantageous monetary incentives too. Indeed, the U.S. doesn’t have vigorously enforced data protection laws for a single company, and a further 53 iOs (mobile operating system for Apple devices) apps apart from TikTok are also taking clipboard data that may or may not be shared with outsources, such as Fox News or Fruit Ninja. This only reveals that other motivations may have played a bigger role.
Regardless of whether there is evidence for national security to be at risk, TikTok undeniably is used as a weapon in the ongoing passive-aggressive war of world domination between the U.S. and China, and is a testament to how China is ever-growing in its dominance of cyberspace. The physical dominance that was required for a foreign power to assert influence is no longer needed in the age of digital technology that is widespread and interconnected. A tactical ban of TikTok and WeChat therefore, not only reinforces American influence and power, but decreases competition for American technology companies in the battleground for control of global technological order, and is no doubt a big part of the incentives behind Trump’s executive order.
However, to deny U.S. transactions with TikTok and WeChat is essentially denying U.S. transactions with the whole of China, which will only hurt American businesses the most. This is because WeChat has virtually replaced card and cash transactions in China and is the sole form of payment in the vast majority of the country, which would be a huge blow to Western companies currently thriving there. An example would be how 30% of Walmart’s transactions came from WeChat. Therefore, carrying out Trump’s executive orders could mean major, even catastrophic blows to American companies. Furthermore, if China retaliates by putting restrictions on U.S. technology giants such as Apple -- when it comes to revenue, China is Apple’s third-largest market -- it would further harm American livelihoods.
Mainland China has long been authoritarian on the apps and websites it allows usage of, to rid foreign, especially Western, influence, in order to perpetuate a good narrative of the country to the population. It also uses large-scale domestic surveillance technology such as in Xinjiang, to subvert, oppress, and control the population. These technologies are also currently being sold to other countries that strive for ‘cyber sovereignty’, which signifies how a country’s internet and flow of information system is closed off to the rest of the world, and is vastly different to what the U.S. regards as reflective of democracy: a free, global, and open flow of information. But ironically, Trump’s action of cutting out two biggest Chinese platforms from the U.S. directly contradicts this, by replicating China’s strategy of banning apps outright and taking one step closer to a closed-off information system. It is ironic how the U.S. views itself as the epitome of freedom and civil liberty, but is setting a precedent that jeopardises non-authoritarian digital worlds. The main impact to come out of the ordeal will not be complete cybersecurity of American data, but the inadvertent championing of state-controlled information systems that the U.S. has always sided itself against, not least because of the deliberate action to target supposed Chinese propaganda that directly endangers the values of free speech of which is so central to democratic values. More importantly, the path down a closed-off information system for the U.S. actually facilitates China to promote their authoritative surveillance technology to the rest of the world, and opens the door for other countries to follow, by giving China a strong argument in retaliation that the U.S. practices censorship too.
Cover photo source: Alex Castro https://www.theverge.com/2020/9/27/21458375/tiktok-judge-trump-china-ban-app-bytedance