The latest U.S.-China clash over the popular social media app TikTok is likely to worsen the already-deteriorating relationship between the two countries, as Beijing and Washington tussle over software bans, technology exports and concerns about espionage and national security.
Last week, the Biden administration renewed Trump-era efforts to allay security concerns about TikTok, created by Chinese tech giant Bytedance Ltd., by demanding that the wildly popular app be sold from Chinese ownership or face a possible ban in the U.S. On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew underwent a bipartisan grilling by a House committee whose members asked pointed questions about data security, alleged racial bias toward content creators and the platform’s mental health effects.
The Chinese government, which is intent on turning homegrown tech companies into world champions, has said it would oppose any sale of TikTok.
Here’s where the dispute stands.
How is China responding?
Hours before Chew began his testimony before the congressional committee Thursday, Chinese Ministry of Commerce spokesperson Shu Jueting said China resolutely opposed demands from U.S. officials that TikTok be sold, adding that any change in ownership would need to comply with Chinese regulations.
A forced sale “will seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China, in investing in the U.S.,” Shu said.
In Chinese state and social media, commentators criticized U.S. lawmakers for biased statements and questions at Chew’s hearing. Others dismissed the event as political theater, or accused the U.S. of trying to steal the technology that powers TikTok’s addictive short-video recommendations.
Last week, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the U.S. has no evidence that TikTok is a threat to national security and should stop discriminating against foreign businesses.
“China has always maintained that the issue of data security should not be used as a tool for certain countries to generalize the concept of national security and abuse state power to suppress other countries’ companies unreasonably,” Wang said.
But some analysts question how far Beijing will go to protect TikTok. While the Chinese government has taken measures to prevent TikTok and its underlying technology from being sold without its approval, it’s less concerned about a U.S. ban on the app, said Angela Zhang, director of the Center for Chinese Law at the University of Hong Kong.
“The ban on TikTok can do little harm to China’s national core interest to become a technologically advanced country,” Zhang said. “TikTok will have to fight this battle on its own.”
Can the U.S. force a sale or ban?
China’s declaration that it would obstruct a sale complicates any U.S. effort to push a deal through, particularly since Beijing added export restrictions on domestic technology in 2020 that necessitates government approval.
Absent divestment, the Biden administration may be left with few choices besides pursuing an outright ban on the app. The U.S. has already barred TikTok from being downloaded and used on some government devices because of national security concerns. Earlier this month, the White House endorsed a bill that would allow President Biden to ban the social media app completely.
The move renewed pressure that harks back to 2020, when the Trump administration threatened to ban TikTok and WeChat, another popular Chinese app used for social messaging and communication. Bytedance had explored a potential sale of an ownership stake in TikTok to Oracle, which was never finalized. Then-President Trump’s attempts to block the app a few years ago were also challenged by federal courts.
That year, India banned more than 50 Chinese apps, including TikTok, following an escalation of border skirmishes and heightened concerns about Chinese military aggression. Governments in Britain, Canada and New Zealand have also limited TikTok on government-owned devices.
Just what is the problem with TikTok?
According to TikTok, the app has about 150 million monthly active users in the U.S. But its broad popularity has exacerbated suspicions among U.S. officials that user data collected stateside could be transferred and used for espionage in China.
Both Republican and Democratic politicians in favor of a TikTok sale or ban have cited concerns about the security of user data, and whether that information could be acquired by the Chinese government. They have also taken aim at TikTok’s record of content moderation, potential to spread disinformation and harmful effects on youth, the app’s biggest user base.
“To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit (it) for future generations,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, said during Thursday’s hearing with TikTok CEO Chew.
Additionally, Chew, who is Singaporean, faced questions over accusations of human rights abuses in China and spying, based on a Forbes report that Bytedance planned to used TikTok to monitor the locations of some U.S. citizens.
In China, many U.S. tech platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google are banned as part of the country’s stringent online censorship. Instead of TikTok, Chinese users have a sister version called Douyin, which is moderated more strictly than its overseas counterpart and limits the time that young users can spend on the app.
Has TikTok addressed these concerns?
In his appearance before Congress, Chew rejected the notion that TikTok was a tool of the Chinese Communist Party or a threat to U.S. national security.
“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. It is a private company,” Chew said in his opening statement.
He assured the panel that TikTok would prioritize teenager safety, protect U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access, ensure freedom of expression and provide access to independent monitors to guarantee transparency.
Chew also outlined the company’s proposal to mitigate concern over Chinese government influence. He said the company has spent roughly $1.5 billion on executing the plan, called Project Texas, which involves using cloud computing company Oracle to route and store U.S. user data, providing the Austin, Texas-based firm access to some of its technology.
“Under this structure, there is no way for the Chinese government to access it or compel access to it,” he said.
But his five-hour long testimony did little to assuage lawmakers’ qualms about the app.
(Researcher David Shen in Taipei contributed to this report.)