When it became known yesterday that the Biden administration had lifted Trump’s bans on TikTok and WeChat, tens of millions of teenagers cheered, as did President Xi and the communist leadership in Beijing.
Certainly no one noticed or bothered that the lifting of the ban was accompanied by an executive order requiring a comprehensive review of apps controlled by foreign adversaries to determine whether they pose a security threat to the US. Likewise, they will ignore attempts by the media to suggest a trade ministry review could lead to even broader crackdown on Chinese apps, including TikTok.
Instead, this government doesn’t seem to understand the power of symbolism. By targeting TikTok and attempting to shut down the app in the US if the company is not put under the control of US owners, the Trump administration has a clear red line on Chinese manipulation pulled by social media to steal data for their strategic purposes. The same was true for WeChat, a Chinese version of Twitter and PayPal. Now this line is deleted. Instead, we have a bureaucratic “review process” that could have been put in place while pressure was kept on TikTok and its parent company, China’s high-tech giant ByteDance.
I’ve explained why adopting TikTok is important in two previous columns.
The problem isn’t that TikTok users are disclosing sensitive information pertaining to our military or intelligence agencies, let alone classified information. But the app collects data, a lot of it. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, can provide this American user data to the Chinese government. Data has become the world’s new critical strategic asset. Those who control access to large amounts of data are in control of the levers of power in the 21st century.
In this photo illustration, the logo of the TikTok social media application is displayed on the screen of screen … [+]
AFP via Getty Images
As I mentioned in my previous column, “An enemy who has the ability to search and quickly identify patterns underlying billions of bits of seemingly disjointed data creates a far more dangerous prospect for our national security than any critic of the Rise of the Machines scenarios AI usually evokes. ”While TikTok and ByteDance have denied any relationship with the Chinese government, any Chinese company can be legally required to hand over their data to the Chinese military or intelligence agencies.
This applies to ByteDance and TikTok; it applies to WeChat; This is especially true of Huawei and the 5G networks it is building around the world, often with the help of telecommunications companies of our leading allies.
When the Trump administration cracked down on TikTok, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out the “national security risks posed by software linked to the Chinese Communist Party.” India, one of TikTok’s largest markets serving the App banned in June 2020 along with nearly sixty other Chinese apps citing the same concerns.
TikTok was the symbolic battlefield on which the struggle for privacy and national security was waged. Now, after the excitement about the origins of the coronavirus, the Biden government seems to have given China a victory that it desperately needs.
It is not clear why the administration gave in here. Though Biden officials speak harshly about confronting Beijing’s arrogance and aggression and try to reassure us that they are on the point (for example, extending the Trump ban on Americans from joining Chinese companies with alleged links to the Chinese military invest), their approach seems tempted to develop a “comprehensive” China strategy that is comprehensive enough not to harm Beijing’s feelings. This has an impact on Biden’s first trip abroad this week. Rather than rallying our democratic allies to confront China with what I have termed an “arsenal of democracies,” the lifting of the TikTok and WeChat bans will send the opposite message: America is taking away China’s drive to cross the high-tech frontier Shift from social, not from media to 5G, into a huge proprietary database, very seriously, and neither should you.
As I pointed out in my second column on TikTok:
“Defeating TikTok and WeChat are skirmishes in a much bigger war, the war for the high-tech future. Our teenagers will survive without TikTok; our freedoms will not be lost if we lose this larger conflict. “