A partygoer at the Hollywood launch of zany app TikTok in the United States last year. Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images/AFP

Is the clock ticking for TikTok? 

The trendy Chinese-owned app has been caught in the crossfire of rising diplomatic tension between Washington and Beijing. Now, it faces an online battle with Zynn, the new kid on the block.

Last month, Kevin Mayer stepped down as Disney’s head of streaming to take over as chief executive officer of TikTok, which is known for its zany multi-second videos and loved by Gen Z teenagers and a growing number of Millennials.

His appointment was seen as a move to head-off calls from politicians in the United States to ban the app, which is part of Bytedance, under national security concerns.

Zynn will hope to avoid a similar fate. Launched last month, the Chinese clone is now the number one free app on the Apple Store and riding high on Google Play.

“Like TikTok, Zynn is the emergence of Chinese tech-ecosystems,” Abishur Prakash, a geopolitical futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future, a strategy consulting firm focused on business and geopolitics, told Asia Times.

“And, this will put it in the crosshairs of governments all over the world. But, because of Zynn’s business model (paying users to watch content and invite friends), it could lead to some unique geopolitical realities,” he said in an email.

As a permafrost grips relations between the US and China, technology companies with links to the world’s second-largest economy appear to be on thin ice.

Telecom juggernaut

During the past two years, 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 the Huawei controversy has extended into a broader technological Sino-American conflict.

“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 back in November as President Donald Trump’s administration ramped up the pressure on Chinese tech firms.

The Zynn app on Google Play. Image: Google Play

In response, Bytedance and TikTok have denied claims they share personal data with the ruling CCP administration and intelligence agencies.

Still, the arrival of Zynn poses another threat to its dominance on the international stage.

Inside China’s complex jungle of startups, the TikTok look-alike is known to have close links to another video-sharing app, Kuaishou, which reportedly received a US$2 billion investment injection from Tencent.

The reason behind the funding was simple. Tencent is one of the big three from the BAT grouping, which includes Baidu and Alibaba, and is a major player in online entertainment and behind the social media site WeChat.

“Regarding Tencent’s investment and China’s policies, Zynn has several options. First, it could operate as a regular Chinese company – one-size-fits-all. Second, it could broaden the strategy used by Tencent Music [and] list on multiple stock exchanges. Third, Zynn could adopt a deep localization strategy where its platform and content are seen by different countries as a local offering,” Prakash, of the Center for Innovating the Future, said.

“Obviously, at one level, this could be perceived as business as usual. But, at another level, this could be the start of the beginning of a new kind of geopolitics that China is pioneering,” he added.

Tencent’s territory

At the same time, Bytedance and TikTok have started to muscle into Tencent’s territory. Last year, the Beijing-based digital company reported revenue of $17 billion compared to $7.4 billion the previous year and profits of $3 billion, according to Bloomberg News.

The Covid-19 lockdowns in North America, Europe and across the world have also boosted its audience and appeal.

“It’s a very interesting position to be in for TikTok right now because the videos are generally pretty light, humorous, fun and easy,” Debra Aho Williamson, the principal analyst for market research company eMarketer, said.

Yet Zynn has managed to gatecrash the party with a concerted promotional campaign of cash rewards and gift cards for users. The plan seems to have worked.

But how it copes with Washington’s clampdown on China’s technology companies is another matter.

“TikTok and Zynn represent not just an extension of Chinese soft power, but they also become important players in promoting Chinese thinking, values and foreign policy. Of course, these companies themselves may be affected by geopolitics,” Prakash told Asia Times.

In the end, only time will tell for TikTok and its new rival Zynn amid a changing geopolitical landscape.