✏️  Libby Gilbert

With its mix of viral dance crazes, lip-sync battles and show off comedic skits, in just a few years of its existence, TikTok has become a staple of internet culture and social interaction for Generation Z. 

But, with its strong links to China, TikTok is the latest company to come under attack as tensions between President Xi’s China and President Trump’s America are on the rise. The US and Australia are considering banning the app and India has already taken it off app stores. Trump is now claiming that he’s going to ban it in the US all together. 

So, how has it got caught up in the US-China clash?

What is TikTok and how big is it?

To put it plain and simple, TikTok is here to make social media fun again.

Since its creation, TikTok has regularly appeared near the top of the download charts and, in 2020, it has become the most installed app of the year with more than 315 million new downloads since January. 

The pandemic lockdowns have been credited with sparking a surge in interest, propelling TikTok to an estimated total of two billion downloads worldwide.

The app has been downloaded by far the most often in India, but Delhi’s ban means China is currently its top market, followed by the US.

image from Unsplash

What are TikTok’s links with China? 

It is important to note that TikTok didn’t actually start as TikTok, but as two separate apps that eventually merged: Musical.ly and Douyin.

Musical.ly was a short-form video app founded in America in 2014 where users could create and share 15-second lip-sync music videos. Douyin was a similar short-form video app launched in China in 2016. 

In September 2017, Douyin expanded outside of China to select international markets under a new name — TikTok. The platform quickly rose to the top of the charts in Thailand, Japan, and other Asian markets. As TikTok started to gain traction globally, Musical.ly was taking over the US.

In November 2017, Douyin’s parent company, ByteDance, purchased Musical.ly in a deal valued at $1 billion. Less than a year later, ByteDance announced it would shut down Musical.ly and merge its operations into TikTok. Ever since TikTok has grown massively!

But TikTok’s rise into the mainstream — especially in the US — has led to increased scrutiny. The fact that TikTok is owned by the colossal Chinese company ByteDance raises concerns about how much access and influence the Chinese government has to user data and content moderation.

To calm concerns, ByteDance recently appointed a new CEO for TikTok, Kevin Mayer, an American ex-Disney streaming executive who is now based out of TikTok’s Los Angeles offices. 

Despite this,  Trump has tweeted this week he will ban the app in America over concerns that TikTok could be pressured into handing over data or other intelligence to the Chinese Communist Party.

Could China use TikTok to spy on people?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has alleged that TikTok users are at risk of their data ending up “in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party”. TikTok has repeatedly insisted that data is collected and stored outside China.”The suggestion that we are in any way under the thumb of the Chinese government is completely and utterly false,” Theo Bertram, TikTok’s head of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told the BBC.

However, like with Huawei, the arguments against TikTok seem to be based around the theoretical possibility of the Chinese government compelling ByteDance under local laws to hand over data on foreign users. The 2017 National Security Law in China compels any organisation or citizen to “support, assist and co-operate with the state intelligence work“.

Mr. Bertram said that if TikTok was approached by the Chinese government, “we would definitely say no to any request for data”.But ByteDance will be mindful of the consequences of displeasing the Communist Party. The company’s own hugely popular news app called Toutiao was taken offline for 24 hours in 2017, according to the South China Morning Post, after the Beijing Internet Information Office said it had been spreading “pornographic and vulgar content”.

Refusing a direct order from the country’s spymasters could also have consequences for the wider company and its leadership.

Could TikTok be used for Chinese propaganda?

Another concern is censorship. China has one of the most restricted internet spaces in the world, with its infamous Great Firewall blocking parts of the web for its citizens.

Last year, the Guardian reported that TikTok’s staff and automated systems had enforced moderation rules that censored material deemed to be politically sensitive. Footage of Tiananmen Square protests and Tibetan independence demands were among the material said to have been banned or restricted.

image from Unsplash

Further reporting from the Washington Post, which talked to six former TikTok employees, said moderators in China had the final say on whether flagged videos were approved.

ByteDance said the guidelines referred to had since been phased out. But some argue that its moderation culture may still be biased in favour of the Chinese state.

How does global politics come into play?

The US has incentives to stick it to China any way they can right now – including Chinese-owned businesses. The United States, particularly the Trump administration, has had a long-running beef with China around several issues, mainly regarding trade. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic broke, US and Chinese relations have soured, with Trump often pinning the blame on China for the outbreak.

image from Unsplash

In fact, China is increasingly a scapegoat for Trump, who is dealing with plummeting poll numbers as American cases of Coronavirus continue to soar. And, when a politician is running for re-election, it helps to have a visible external enemy that they are standing up to. 

So, the justification behind the TikTok ban is vague but is rooted in anti-China sentiment that has been exacerbated by the recent political actions of the Chinese government, as well as China’s approach to privacy and data. 

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Last Update: August 02, 2020