What the TikTok Security Controversy Reveals about Sinophobia in the United States
Jocelyn La Force Regli (PPS ‘25)
The hostile congressional hearing and subsequent investigation of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is a gross depiction of the intense sinophobia in the United States. The tremendous disrespect for the Singaporean CEO and company from Democrats and Republicans alike is rooted in unfounded, racist stereotypes of China and Chinese/Americans. The Biden Administration has threatened to potentially ban TikTok in the United States citing concerns of the “Chinese authoritarian government” and Chinese propaganda.
Congress has not been able to provide substantial evidence TikTok is a threat to American security. In fact, TikTok has partnered with an American tech firm to invest $1.5 billion dollars into increasing cybersecurity and circumventing personal data out of China.
The importance of cybersecurity has grown exponentially along with social media and the digitization of personal information and financial records. There have been thousands of cybersecurity breaches and leaks in the United States alone each year releasing sensitive information of hundreds of millions of Americans. However, China has only been suspected in only two large cybersecurity breaches without definitive proof in recent years. In fact, the majority of the largest and most severe data security breaches and leaks were rooted in domestic errors and terrorism.
Facebook has faced arguably the most cybersecurity breaches, leaks, and controversies since 2013. In the largest security leak, about 530 million Facebook users were exposed and exploited due to a vulnerability in the technological software in April 2021. Following the testimony of whistleblower Frances Haugen regarding privacy concerns of Facebook, Congress heard testimony from a number of leaders at Facebook Corporations including CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
There are stark differences between the Facebook controversy and the TikTok controversy. Despite the concrete and compelling evidence of a lack of significant data protections and filters of sensitive content for young users, Facebook concerns were forgotten quickly after the congressional hearings and faced no serious consequences. Further, the Trump Administration did not comment on the Facebook controversy.
Additionally, Mark Zuckerberg has expanded the scope of his company since the congressional hearing. It is important to underscore there has been no further discussion regarding Zuckerberg’s control and containment of personal data and information.
TikTok has had no such whistleblowers nor specified instances of cybersecurity vulnerability and has been met with more hostility from all parties. Despite unfounded concerns, there are serious threats of complete censorship from the U.S. Senate and the Biden Administration.
Moreover, taking into consideration the language barrier between Shou Zi Chew and the members of Congress as well as the lack of a translator, the environment of the hearing becomes increasingly more hostile especially taking into account the duration of almost 6 hours.
In terms of Chinese propaganda, TikTok is not used in China due to cyber restrictions. Chinese users can be found on the TikTok equivalent Douyin. Additionally, Shou Zi Chew identifies as Singaporean. Singapore often identifies separately from China due to a historically tenuous relationship. The United States is notorious for treating Asian/Americans as one monolith; as such, it is not difficult to assume Congress could not make the proper distinction between the two governing bodies.
Additionally, TikTok is not unique in the use of the platform to spread disinformation. Other social media platforms have propaganda concerns from China, Russia, and other foreign bodies and yet, these companies are not facing the same scrutiny. Facebook was most famously known for Russian influence over the 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton; however, there was a weak and short-lived investigation into the security and propaganda concerns.
In fact, right-wing and extremist propaganda and disinformation pose a greater threat than Chinese propaganda. QAnon and right-wing extremists have had serious influence and increasingly large followings on the app. Congress has made no significant effort to address nor combat domestic and extremist propaganda.
Cybersecurity and content concerns are very real and valid. As such, Congress and the Biden Administration should apply this level of scrutiny to all social media platforms. It is clear all platforms pose a great risk to American data protection particularly social media giants Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
Overall, Asian bodies and companies are often policed more heavily than their white counterparts and TikTok is a striking example. The TikTok congressional hearing coupled with the precedent of banning Chinese companies reveal the longstanding history of sinophobia in the United States.
Jocelyn La Force Regli PPS (’25) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.