For TikTok, the clock is ticking. Like Huawei, the trendy Chinese-owned app has been caught in the crossfire of the ongoing trade war between Beijing and Washington.
Earlier this week, media reports revealed that Zhang Yiming, the chief executive of parent company Bytedance, had sent an internal memo calling for a “diversifying of growth.” Beefing up user data protection and honing its global image were other key priorities.
Yet, his comments came hours after Washington had zeroed in on TikTok, which is famed for its zany multi-second videos and loved by Gen Z teenagers and quite a few Millennials.
“If your child uses TikTok, there’s a chance the Chinese Communist Party knows where they are, what they look like, what their voices sound like, and what they’re watching,” Josh Hawley, a Republican senator, said after he introduced a bill, entitled the National Security and Personal Data Protection Act, to limit the flow of sensitive information from US online users to China.
“That is a feature TikTok doesn’t advertise,” he added.
Calls for a US government study into TikTok and Bytedance have grown amid concerns that they could share personal data with the ruling Communist Party administration and intelligence agencies. Both allegations have been denied.
“Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law,” TikTok officials wrote in a statement. “We have [also] never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period.”
Still, the specter of censorship and fears about data privacy have become contentious issues as the trade conflict drags on into a second year.
In the past 18 months, Washington has accused China’s high-tech giant Huawei of spying and breaking US sanctions imposed on North Korea and Iran. The telecom and smartphone juggernaut has denied the accusations.
But as a permafrost descends on Sino-American relations, technology companies with direct links to the world’s second-largest economy appear to be on thin ice.
Last month, a letter to the director of national intelligence from Democrat Senate Minority Leader Charles E Schumer and Republican Tom Cotton captured the chill wind sweeping across Capitol Hill.
“With over 110 million downloads in the US alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” they wrote.
“Given these concerns, we ask that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by [it] and other China-based content platforms operating in the US and brief [the US] Congress on these findings.”
With 500 million global users, TikTok has become an overnight sensation among teenagers around the world and, in particular, the US. Known as Douyin in China, the crazy video app is part of Bytedance, an entertainment and social media group, valued at up to US$75 billion.
Since being launched in 2012, Zang’s brainchild has gradually muscled into the territory occupied by Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, or the BAT grouping as they are fondly known.
“The US should carefully study the TikTok phenomenon and learn from it. TikTok has its own algorithm, but it pays close attention to abiding by laws and customs of the countries where it is carrying out business activities,” an editorial in state-run Global Times stated.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do – this is a universal rule for business activities. All US social media giants have the opportunity to enter the Chinese market if they follow the rules,” the tabloid, owned by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, added.
True, but within strict censorship constraints that make up the Great Firewall, which hems in the country’s online community. Tick tock, tick tock, TikToc.