The TikTok saga is being brewed to target China

By Imran Khalid | Gwadar Pro Mar 29, 2023

Editor's note: The writer is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of Gwadar Pro.

On Thursday, TikTok's CEO faced intense scrutiny from US lawmakers over concerns about potential Chinese influence on the platform and the negative impact of its short videos on children's mental health.

Despite TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew's five-hour-long testimony before the Congress committee, where he did his best to address the lawmakers’ concerns over TikTok's China-based parent company ByteDance, it appeared that the biased lawmakers had already decided to batter Chew on every question so as to pave the way for a ban on TikTok.

To date, there has been no publicly available evidence to suggest that Beijing is gathering business data from TikTok for intelligence or any other purposes. However, during Chew’s testimony, he was subjected to the worst kind of bigotry and chauvinism by the US lawmakers, which corroborates the fact that the American career politicians have decided to strangle TikTok.

Without any additional evidence, the reason for the targeted crackdown on TikTok has become more apparent - the company's origin as a Chinese entity, seen as its original sin. This is why the American media, rather than attempting to gather concrete evidence, has prioritized a campaign to portray China as a 'villain'.

The timing of this Chew’s hearing is of extreme importance because of a new legislative proposal being introduced by Senators Mark Warner, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, and John Thune, the Senate Republican whip, that could enhance the government's legal authority to address perceived threats originating from foreign-owned apps. The proposed legislation would mandate the Commerce Department to establish protocols to manage risks and potentially prohibit foreign technology. In specific situations, this legislation would enable the authorities to impose the prohibition of a particular platform or service. Biden administration officials are already favoring this proposed legislation.

Just a few days earlier, the American media was rife with news about threats of a ban on TikTok unless the app’s Chinese owners agreed to sell their share of the social media platform. The reported ultimatum from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a multiagency panel, signifies a potential shift in the ongoing negotiations with the US federal authorities worried about TikTok's connections to China.

TikTok has sternly rebutted all these assumptions and challenged the proposal of ‘change of ownership’ as a farcical attempt that will not address the basic concern pertaining to data security. TikTok has denied spying allegations and claims to have invested over $1.5 billion in data security measures. To date, there is no evidence of the Chinese government having accessed user data from TikTok.

But, as we have seen in the case of the Balloon Saga, where the Americans went full throttle to project it as a Chinese spying vehicle without any evidence or proof, this issue is being dragged to bully TikTok and other Chinese tech companies to shrink their presence in the United States, which is certainly against the spirit of the so-called "free trade" being promoted as one of the main planks of American democracy.

TikTok has taken steps to alleviate policymakers' concerns by implementing voluntary technical and bureaucratic measures that it claims will ensure US user data can only be accessed by US-based employees. As part of this effort, the company has launched "Project Texas," which involves storing personal data with the US cloud provider Oracle. This month, TikTok also launched a similar initiative in Europe called "Project Clover."

But despite such transparent and consistent efforts by TikTok to alleviate all the concerns of the US authorities, the app is being deliberately subjected to discrimination on the pretext of its Chinese origin. This is a blatantly biased approach by the American policy makers that is now creating a new division and new bloc within the domain of business, which will also certainly discourage corporations from other non-Western countries from reconsidering expanding their operations in the United States. This is blatant protectionism that will seriously jeopardize the global business environment.

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