Billions of people around the world witnessed the U.S. Congressmen and Congresswomen grilling Shou Zi Chow, the TikTok CEO, in a hearing that was held at the U.S. Capitol Hill. In the eyes of some young Chinese people, particularly the young users of Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, Chow, a Singaporean national, became an overnight hero who stood up to the bullying of the hysterical U.S. politicians.
The hearing was called to testify whether the Chinese government and the employees of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance can use the app to spy on Americans, or promote content favorable to Chinese interests. Instead of asking actually important questions related to how TikTok does business and uses the data it gathers from users, the U.S. Congresspersons were focused on being xenophobic. They were often making statements rather than questioning the testimony.
Surprising to most, if not all, TV audience, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, who is the chair of House Energy and Commerce Committee, directly pronounced in her opening statement that “your platform should be banned,” because she had a verdict even before the hearing had commenced.
Indeed, many countries have in place a system which is called “national security review” to screen foreign investment. However, such a review shall in no case be carried out arbitrarily.
Unfortunately, throughout these years, the U.S. national security review system has been politicized vis-a-vis investors from China as Washington steps up its strategic competition with Beijing. There has been a growing chorus of bipartisan lawmakers that view Chinese investment, particularly from state-owned enterprises, as a threat. To them, anything from China is dubious. Investments by Chinese companies are naturally associated with the Chinese government, and the Chinese government could put a lot of pressure on any company in China to turn in data and to spy on other countries.
In this context, the United States-based TikTok, which has appealed to more than one billion users, most of whom are young Americans, has been regarded as “a threat to national security” or a thorn in the flesh time and again by the American politicians.
During the tenure of former President Donald Trump, TikTok was once at the verge of a forced exit from the U.S. market until its data storage facility was taken over by Oracle, an American tech giant. Since Joe Biden came to power, his administration did not shift its eyes elsewhere from TikTok and other Chinese tech companies. Instead, the Biden administration has gradually reined in. First, a presidential order was issued to ban use of the TikTok app in the public premise of the federal government. Then, TikTok was warned either to divest from ByteDance, or face a severe punishment, including the possibility of a ban.
Ironically, all these hostile measures were not supported by evidence, but by the presumption that China could use the TikTok app to spy on, or blackmail, the millions of Americans who use it every day.
From a legal point of view, TikTok is an international company that is separated from its parent company ByteDance, which is a private company that is not under the control of the Chinese government. Unfortunately, the repeated assurance that TikTok does not promote or remove content at the request of Chinese authorities, and that TikTok users’ data are being made inaccessible to foreign intrusion, as Chow testified in the Congress hearing, does not make sense to xenophobic politicians. These politicians today tend to hysterically exaggerate the threat from their “opponents.”
TikTok is now flooded with videos of its users mocking the Congressmen and Congresswomen, hailing Chow and supporting TikTok. If only these political figures could spend some time listening to their young countrymen and become more reasonable.
Kong Qingjiang is the dean of the School of International Law at the China University of Political Science and Law. The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of The Southern African Times.