This is not the first time that China has seen a frenzy over TikTok consume Washington.

In 2020, President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order that would have forced TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell the popular app. But Beijing foiled a takeover bid by American buyers by slapping curbs on technology exports. Last year, Montana lawmakers enacted a ban on TikTok in the state, but a federal judge blocked the law before it could take effect.

Now, U.S. lawmakers are again trying to force ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese owner, to give up control of the app. On Wednesday, the House passed a bill, by a 352-to-65 vote, that would force ByteDance to either sell the app or see it banned in the United States.

But the fervor has not yet triggered a high-alert response from China’s leaders or prompted retaliatory threats against American companies. Instead, officials in Beijing have blasted the bill but largely reiterated common criticisms of U.S. policy as unfair to China.

There are several reasons for their restraint, experts said. Despite the bill’s bipartisan support in the House, it faces an uncertain fate in the Senate. Mr. Trump, the expected Republican presidential nominee, has said he opposes the bill despite his 2020 executive order against TikTok. And China has legal tools it could use to try to block any sale.

“China is not ready to pull the trigger outright for a full-scale retaliation against what the United States is doing,” said Scott Kennedy, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

TikTok wields wide influence in the United States, particularly among younger people. It has an estimated 170 million users in the United States, up from 100 million in 2020. It has an even bigger global footprint, with an estimated one billion users across 140 countries. ByteDance’s Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, had more than 600 million daily active users by mid-2020, the last time it reported those statistics.

In Washington, lawmakers say that Beijing could use TikTok to spread Chinese Communist Party messages or gain access to sensitive data about TikTok’s American users.

President Biden has said he would sign the House bill if it came to his desk. But Mr. Trump’s opposition to the legislation has signaled to Beijing that it can keep its powder dry.

“Trump’s opposing view took the wind out of this bill’s sails, so there is reason for Beijing and ByteDance to believe this issue will eventually wither away,” said Kevin Xu, the U.S.-based founder of Interconnected Capital, a hedge fund that invests in artificial intelligence technologies.

TikTok says it has taken steps to protect American users’ data and privacy. It has proposed an arrangement to store U.S. user data on domestic servers controlled by Oracle. But that effort to address lawmakers’ security concerns has not come together, leaving “absolutely zero trust between TikTok and Washington at this point,” said Mr. Xu.

Despite years of scrutiny, a Chinese company still owns TikTok. And even if lawmakers in Washington agree to force a sale, officials in Beijing have warned in the past that such a transaction would require their approval.

In 2020, when a sale of TikTok to American investors, including Oracle and Microsoft, appeared to be close, the Chinese government asserted its authority over exports it considered sensitive; experts believe those rules encompass technology like the algorithm that powers TikTok. The move effectively scuttled attempts to put TikTok in the hands of American owners.

The export controls mean China could block the sale of the very thing that makes TikTok so addictive — its powerful algorithm that divines users’ interests to serve them video after video.

Inside China, the belief among academics and commentators is that Beijing would not allow ByteDance to sell this technology to a foreign company.

Any sale of TikTok without its core algorithm would leave a potential buyer with a much less appealing product, Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said on the Chinese social media platform Weibo in a post on Thursday that drew 184,000 views.

China’s state-controlled media circulated a statement on Thursday by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that cited the treatment of TikTok as evidence of the United States’ “double standards” in protecting freedom of speech. On China’s social media platforms, which are censored, the push in Washington has stoked outrage over the treatment of Chinese companies.

On Weibo this week, “TikTok fights back” became a trending topic after the platform urged its users to mobilize against the House bill. Many commenters characterized the bill as theft and questioned Washington’s commitment to free-market competition. They also worried the bill could be a template for Washington to use against other Chinese-owned technology companies.

“Can we really do business like this?” asked Shen Yi, a scholar of cyberspace governance at Fudan University in Shanghai. Washington wielded the concept of national security as a gun “to the head of any company from any country, saying: ‘Sell it or find other companies to work with. It’s for your own good,’” Mr. Shen said.

At a news briefing on Friday, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, demurred when asked about the latest developments in the TikTok furor in Washington. “We answered questions about TikTok yesterday,” he said.

Olivia Wang contributed research from Hong Kong.


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Credit: NYTimes.com

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