The Chinese Communist Party has been exporting its virtual panopticon to liberal democracies via WeChat, TikTok, and other online platforms in its pursuit of more global influence. As part of a broader push against Chinese influence, the Trump administration in recent weeks has rolled out a number of measures to deal with the threat of Chinese technology.
The White House forced TikTok into acquisition talks with Microsoft, following a U.S. government panel’s decision to force divestment from the app’s parent company ByteDance. Negotiators have until September 15 to reach a deal. After that, President Trump says he will ban the app.
Building on this, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week announced the “Clean Network” program, a State Department initiative to certify trusted partners who have worked to rid their products and networks of malign foreign influence.
And on Thursday, the president laid the groundwork to follow through on his threat of a TikTok ban, unveiling two executive orders. The first bans anyone subject to U.S. jurisdiction from transacting with ByteDance and its subsidiaries after September 20. The second one does the same, but it applies to the Chinese messaging app WeChat and Tencent, its parent company.
Does the president actually have the power to force a TikTok spinoff? He does. In the recent past, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has ordered Chinese investors to divest from American companies (although Trump’s comments about making the parties to a TikTok acquisition deal pay the Treasury were ludicrous). There is also legal justification for potentially banning the apps under the International Economic Emergency Powers Act and a May 2019 executive order. In any case, it’s hard to imagine ByteDance and Tencent exposing themselves to discovery during future litigation.
The Trump administration has drawn criticism for undermining Internet freedom, but the true danger to such freedom would be to let these apps continue to operate unimpeded.
ByteDance has a long history of caving to CCP pressure, censoring its products in China and boosting disgusting propaganda about the Uighur concentration camps. The company’s CEO once signed a public apology under political pressure in which he vowed his support for the political philosophy of CCP general secretary Xi Jinping. There is bipartisan support for action on TikTok; no one doubts that it would comply with Chinese government requests for the data of its American users.
A WeChat ban might seem more complicated, because it is a fixture of daily life for countless millions within China, connecting them with their relatives abroad. The problem is that the CCP has used this indispensable app to surveil the Chinese diaspora abroad. It also spreads disinformation via the app, working to convince these overseas Chinese, many of whom are citizens and voters in their new countries, of Beijing’s narrative. Because of its history of effectively spreading CCP lies, WeChat might be even more insidious than TikTok.
Critics say that the Trump administration’s recent moves bring the American model of Internet governance closer to China’s. But nothing the U.S. is doing is remotely like Beijing’s Great Firewall, erected to keep out politically inconvenient information and twist the Internet to its purposes. Not acting on TikTok and WeChat would allow the CCP to continue to spread its illiberal version of the Internet abroad and turn a blind eye to the CCP’s interference in democracies and cooptation of global online platforms used by millions.
India, which banned these Chinese apps, in addition to dozens of others, gets this. Japan and Australia have also looked into banning TikTok (though Australia has for now decided against it). The Trump administration is not an outlier here.
There’s more work yet to be done by the U.S. and its partners who understand this very 21st-century threat.