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Is TikTok Its Own Worst Enemy?

As the United States moves closer to a ban on the app, its executives and the Chinese government aren’t doing it any favors.

James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to testify before the U.S. Congress.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to testify before the U.S. Congress.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to testify before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 23. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: The United States moves closer toward a TikTok ban after a congressional hearing with the app’s CEO, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen makes a pit stop in the United States en route to Latin America, and China breaks up technology giant Alibaba Group.

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Congress Moves Closer to TikTok Ban

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced a grueling congressional hearing in Washington last week, with lawmakers determined to pummel the popular video-sharing app owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance. Chew did not come out of the event looking good; his inability to acknowledge Uyghur oppression in China was a particularly embarrassing moment. Chew’s performance solidified existing hostility in Congress and sped up movement toward a U.S. ban of the app.

Other TikTok executives have performed similarly in response to questions over the app’s parent company. The app’s vice president of public policy for Europe recently claimed that ByteDance wasn’t a Chinese company because it was incorporated in the Cayman Islands and has foreign investors. That would come as a surprise to executives at ByteDance’s Beijing headquarters, who have repeatedly made statements about their commitment to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). ByteDance reportedly circumscribes Chew’s own power.

TikTok may seem like its own worst enemy, but there is a lot of competition for that title. Washington bears significant ill will toward the app, in part because many groups can find something to dislike about it: whether they’re prominent right-wing figures, China hawks, concerned parents, or privacy advocates. This is accentuated by how little the app is used by those who hold power: More than 70 percent of TikTok users are under 35, and most of those users are under 25.

TikTok also suffers—somewhat unfairly—by serving as a stand-in for wider concerns over Chinese economic power and media influence. Washington’s China hawks have convinced themselves that the debate over the app is a key battle. It may be, but that has more to do with altering the dynamic around what’s acceptable when it comes to Chinese investments. After all, many Chinese firms already invest in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Stringing TikTok up is likely intended to dissuade firms that might otherwise take Chinese money.

Ironically, the Chinese government is also frustrating TikTok’s ability to persuade U.S. politicians of its harmlessness. During the congressional hearing last week, a Wall Street Journal article on the Chinese government’s opposition to a forced sale of TikTok to a hypothetical U.S. buyer was cited multiple times. Chinese government officials and pundits have made hay of the hearing, claiming that China is more open for business than the United States. (This doesn’t track, given how many products are banned in China without any hearing or discussion.)

Other online commentators—with the approval and promotion of the censors—cheered Chew, a Singaporean national, as a defender of the Chinese nation and highlighted his Chinese ethnic background. Beijing going to bat for TikTok will likely only convince U.S. politicians of the app’s ties to the Chinese government. China’s own national security laws and repeated strong-arming of tech executives remain the greatest evidence that TikTok is a security risk. After all, ByteDance’s leadership can’t resist legal pressure or personal threats to their freedom in Beijing.

The U.S. case for banning TikTok largely still rests on a potential security threat rather than a realized one. Like many Western tech companies, TikTok has a poor record on data privacy, and its engineers in China have accessed private data on U.S. users. The firm’s own guidelines show that it downplays videos on topics the Chinese government dislikes, although within a framework of sensitive content as a whole. But the worst-case scenarios—such as TikTok handing over private data directly to the Chinese government—so far remain unrealized or unproven.

That said, the increasingly common argument that regulating TikTok would be hypocritical or a distraction from broader data regulation seems shaky to me. Arguing that the U.S. government can’t solve one specific problem without solving every problem is a recipe for doing nothing. And TikTok’s Chinese ownership—when there are no limits on what the CCP can access—is a clear and specific difference between the app and, say, Facebook. In theory, China can buy Americans’ data through brokers, but it’s a lot easier if it has a direct pipeline.

An attempted ban in the United States—or a forced divestment of TikTok from ByteDance—now seems almost inevitable. Yet the current proposed bill, the RESTRICT Act, would grant sweeping powers that run up against other U.S. laws designed to encourage the movement of information across borders as well as freedom of speech. Any attempt to restrict the app seems likely to land in the courts, where it could be tangled up for years—and that might still threaten its market share if it’s deleted from mobile phones in the meantime.

I propose a simple solution: Chinese officials can put as much propaganda as they like on TikTok, but they have to do so while dancing.

What We’re Following

Tsai kicks off Americas trip. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is headed to the United States for a so-called transit visit en route to some of the handful of Latin American countries that still extend diplomatic recognition to Taipei rather than Beijing. Taiwanese leaders passing through the United States as “transit” is a diplomatic fiction that dates to the 1990s. It still provokes a reaction from China, and this trip is particularly likely to do so: Tsai will meet with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, echoing former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taipei last year.

Tsai’s Latin American visits come just after Honduras broke long-term ties with Taipei in the hope of attracting Chinese investment. In some ways, Latin American countries stand to gain the most from U.S.-China conflict because they can play each side off the other while remaining geographically isolated from Beijing. And unlike the Soviet Union, today’s China is just as happy to deal with a capitalist elite as socialist revolutionaries.

Database access cut. A key Chinese academic database, the China National Knowledge Infrastructure, is now off-limits to foreigners—following a recent pattern of China slashing access to information as well as simply pulling data offline. For example, court verdicts were once easily accessible, but today the amount of cases of all kinds made public has been dramatically reduced. Restraints on foreign access can be circumvented with the aid of Chinese citizens or virtual private networks, but a lot of information is now just gone, full stop.

In the 2010s, China placed a lot of data online as it attempted to hold local governments more accountable, but it is now being pulled because the data has turned out to be inadvertently revelatory. The use of procurement notices and population data by Western analysts to identify the scale of the atrocities in Xinjiang helped spur the online cleanup. In some cases, pressure comes from Chinese companies fearful of being targeted by U.S. laws.

With journalists largely silenced, China is likely to grow only more opaque, especially when it comes to business. On-the-ground efforts have also become riskier: Five employees of a Western due diligence firm have disappeared after being detained last week.

FP’s Most Read This Week

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing by Winthrop Rodgers

Scoop: Turkey and Hungary Not Invited to Biden’s Big Democracy Summit by Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World by Graham Allison

Tech and Business

Alibaba broken up. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, in Beijing’s black books since an inadvertently provocative speech in 2020, returned to make a public appearance in his hometown, Hangzhou, after months abroad. The visit coincides with the breakup of his once mighty firm, Alibaba Group, into six separate units. Chinese regulators effectively coerced the breakup; they distrusted the company’s power in online finance and blocked a potential $37 billion initial public offering for Ant Group, Alibaba’s fintech spinoff, in 2020.

As dissident financier Desmond Shum pointed out on Twitter, there is a high chance that Ma “put on a smiley face” amid the Alibaba split because the government threatened to do worse. Some analysts have interpreted the breakup as a potential end to China’s technology crackdown, but this is a misread: It seems to confirm that government dominance is the norm.

A revealing crypto bribe? The U.S. government has accused disgraced cryptocurrency entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried of paying a $40 million bribe to a Chinese official (or officials) to get $1 billion in assets unfrozen in China. If true, the case could be revealing: It’s rare for Western firms to get so directly involved in Chinese corruption, especially with a single payment of that scale. But FTX, Bankman-Fried’s company, was sloppy in many of its dealings, which may offer a window into how the alleged bribe was solicited and paid.

In 2017 and 2018, I heard rumors that Chinese officials were allowing some cryptocurrency exchanges to remain open because it was one more reliable way to get money out of China. But the Chinese government has since tightened up, and if the official gets named and isn’t shielded by their own connections, the consequences could be painful.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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