US vs China: The App Agenda
In the last few months, TikTok has had doors slammed in its face by many nations — including America and India — due to the rapidly spreading anti-China sentiment in wake of the coronavirus. This isn’t the first time tensions have flared in Chinese relations: trade, proxies, journalism curbs, you name it; these two nations will fight it out in any avenue they can afford. And they’ve broached another one: a social media application.
The US has historically been on the front lines when it comes to its traditional position on internet governance and online free speech: always for it. However, Trump issuing an executive order that prohibits any transactions with TikTok deviates from this age-old policy. Of course, this isn’t the first spark in US-China relations, this isn’t the first time tensions have flared in US-China relations; the ‘banning’ of TikTok is another one to add to a fast-growing list.
There’s not much the entire world agrees on, but the fact that the US and China are technological giants is one. While people are intimately familiar with the apps offered by Twitter and the Facebook consortium — that is Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp — their Chinese equivalents, although widely used, remain less well-known in the western hemisphere. Twitter’s equivalent Weibo had over 516 million active users as of the fourth quarter of 2019, whereas Twitter had only 300 million. According to Statista, Facebook’s Chinese twin Renren had 257 million users in 2017 and WeChat, a messaging service like WhatsApp has over 1 billion users. Despite having such a large audience, how is it that we don’t often hear about them?
This can be traced back to a Venn diagram: one of the circles of the apps’ users, which overlap very minutely. US citizens have no need for apps such as WeChat or Renren, and Chinese citizens are unable to access the US equivalent of the apps.
Back in 2009, sectarian violence had ripped through Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Province of China. With the result being unrest throughout the nation, the government decided to curb the internet temporarily, but ban Twitter permanently, probably due to their lax position on censorship. The Chinese government also shut down local microblogging site Fanfou for a year, successfully removing all competition as they paved the way for a new start-up to fill the shoes of Twitter; Sina Weibo by the Sina corporation then had the perfect opening to become a microblogging giant. It was only then that the world realised that China was willing to censor its internet in the interests of national security — something the US wasn’t willing to do.
But in 2020, the rules of the game changed. Anti-China sentiment spread almost as fast as the coronavirus, and it has had a huge effect on world politics — to say the very, very least.
What really precipitated the software war, however, was the huge standoff between India and China in Ladakh that occurred in May. In the wake of this skirmish, India banned 50 Chinese apps — including social media giants like TikTok and WeChat. Shortly after India made this move, the US followed suit with Trump banning both apps. Issuing sanctions via executive orders, Trump’s emphasis on security concerns seems more politically convenient than conventional.
Instagram reacted fast — almost too fast? — to TikTok’s demise, launching its own short video feature: Reels. Instagram successfully filled the void left by the ban of TikTok, both in the software and the users' minds. So, one application gets banned, and immediately there’s another taking its place. Sound familiar?
It should because this is the same move that was pulled by the Chinese government back in 2009 for Sina Weibo; it is likely that Facebook had a similar intention.
The developments of August and September 2020 go to show the US position in an even clearer lens. Donald Trump gave TikTok one option: sell. By September 15th, TikTok had to sell their company or risk getting shut down. This seems logical, right? But in early August, Trump stated that any deal that went through would only be allowed if a cut was given to the US Treasury. This does seem like the administration is shaking down TikTok and the internet sector to keep its rights to stay on the air. TikTok was eventually bought off by Oracle and Walmart, two American firms. Trump, predictably, gave the deal blessing, just one day before the ban was to come into effect.
The war ensuing on this front has impacted a great many people. If Trump still doesn’t accept the TikTok acquisition, TikTok creators could be left without a platform to earn their living, leaving them no choice now but to move to Reels — where they must start from scratch. Chinese companies have lost the revenue associated with having millions of users; TikTok had 80 million users in the US alone, as well as 120 million in India. Such a move on the US’ part has inevitably led to an escalation in tensions between the two nations — as was probably intended. While the United States has stated that the ban of the apps was a move to protect user data in the name of security, some of these apps have been around for quite a while. This seems like more of a protectionist move aimed at appeasing those with an anti-China sentiment.
It shows that the United States is willing to take a stand on the internet too, but rather than the censorship of residents, they are willing to further its foreign, and even fiscal policy by controlling local market space. This could be equally damaging to business confidence in the tech sector and US trade with the outside world. The situation seems to be going the same way as China when it comes to its app space, even if for different reasons. This would be vicious for world politics and the industry if it isn’t nipped in the bud.
The question that’s on everyone’s mind, especially after the hot trash that was the Presidential Debate, is: what’s in store for the 2020 elections? Well, Trump’s position is clear, and Joe Biden’s campaign troops have been instructed to delete TikTok from their phones. While one could infer that this is just an election pander, it’s not a huge leap to assume this sentiment will mean that policy will not stray, no matter how the election pans out.
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Hu, Shulin. Mar 26, 2020. “Weibo — How is China’s Second Largest Social Media Platform Being Used For Social Research?”. London, United Kingdom: London School of Economics.
McGregor, Gracy. Aug 15, 2020. “Why Trump’s WeChat Ban Scares Us Companies More Than His TikTok Crackdown”. New York, NY: Fortune.
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