The algorithms that companies like ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, deploy are immensely powerful. But it is difficult to argue that they serve the advancement of Chinese society. Image: AFP

India banned 59 Chinese mobile applications on Monday, citing national cybersecurity concerns, after a deadly military clash between the two countries over their Himalayan border. The Indian Ministry of Information Technology said these apps “are engaged in activities which are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, the security of the state and public order.” 

The Indian digital market has been dominated by Chinese mobile apps such as TikTok, WeChat and UC Browser, which have more than 200 million, 100 million and 180 million users respectively in India. Indian intelligence agencies have claimed that these mobile applications extract a massive amount of data to intrude in the privacy of Indian citizens and leverage national sovereignty.

The US has for decades complained to China about its multiple and repeated intrusions into corporate networks to steal intellectual property and proprietary business information. “Espionage and theft were part of this, but so were forced technology transfers or mandatory joint ventures as a condition for doing business in China,” a US cybersecurity expert said in 2018.

In the same way, European Union leaders have expressed concerns about the alarming levels of Beijing-linked cyber espionage on European industries. A study for the European Commission in 2018 found that cyber espionage was costing Europe billions of euros in economic growth – “a figure that would rise as European companies digitize their services.”

Japan and South Korean complain that Chinese hackers attack government and private websites in both countries. They accuse China of attacking national cybersecurity via China-made mobile applications and websites.       

However, none of these countries, somehow, have banned Chinese websites or mobile applications in the name of national security and sovereignty. India is, thus, the first country in the world officially to block nearly 60 Chinese mobile apps as a response to China’s aggressive illegal activities in cyberspace.

So how about China and its own cybersecurity? It has never allowed any of the popular international websites and mobile applications, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google, among others, to step foot in the Chinese Internet market. Under the Great Firewall (防火长城), the Chinese systematically filter and block the flow of outside information via the Internet to manipulate their netizens.

In 2010, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security proclaimed: “Within Chinese territory, the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty, and thus the Internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected.”

If that is the case, why doesn’t China respect the Internet sovereignty of other countries?  

Chinese mobile applications and websites are obviously the best channels for cyber-hackers and spies to disrupt international cyberspace and spread misinformation among Internet users. Moreover, by using these apps, China steals individual data and government information and utilizes them for its commercial and political benefit.

What can the world do? India has set the example, which happens to be very effective. As discussed above, this counterattack could be a great loss for China, weakening its digital market, information management and commercial benefits. Zhao Lijian, the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, immediately responded to India’s move by saying that “China is strongly concerned about the relevant notice issued by the Indian side.”  

If many countries decided to follow India’s initiative, it would serve two major interests: first, it could reduce the strength of toxic Chinese Internet attacks in international cyberspace and guarantee the safety of common people and governments. Second, this could be a significant reciprocal action toward China’s ban on the flow of free information and manipulation of its own netizens. 

Kunsang Thokmay (aka Darig Thokmay) is a PhD scholar in Asian studies at the University of Oxford. He has worked at many research centers such as Oxford Socio-legal Studies and the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics. His work has appeared, apart from academic journals, at Asia Times, The Times of India, Asian Affairs and The Diplomat, among others.