This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in Taiwan are investigating TikTok amid reports the Chinese-owned social media platform set up an illegal subsidiary on the democratic island, as analysts warned that widespread use of the app could result in Beijing feeding “digital opium” to the island’s children and young people.
The democratic island’s Mainland Affairs Council, which is in charge of handling its relationship with China, said on Sunday that the justice department is investigating a suspected breach of Taiwanese law after an alleged attempt to set up a TikTok subsidiary there.
The probe comes amid growing calls for amendments to Taiwan’s national security law to prevent Chinese companies from using their commercial-seeming platforms to spread misinformation and Communist Party propaganda overseas, amid particular concerns over the mass harvesting of user data and the effects of Beijing-approved content on young minds, analysts told Radio Free Asia.
Citing a cabinet-level task-force which found on Dec. 9 that a company was suspected of engaging in “illegal business activities” in Taiwan on TikTok’s behalf, the Mainland Affairs Council said on Dec. 18 it had transferred the case to the judiciary for investigation.
The task-force was convened to discuss countermeasures against security risks posed by Chinese social media platforms, including TikTok and Douyin, which are ultimately owned by China’s ByteDance.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs has called both apps “harmful against national information security,” and both TikTok and another Chinese social media platform, Xiaohongshu, have been banned from operating on the island under laws governing relations with China.
Taiwan-registered Shengyang International Biotechnology, established in March 2018, was approved to change its registered name to Tiktoktaiwan in November.
An investigation by the Taichung Municipal Economic Development Bureau revealed that the heads of the two companies had the same name, and that there had been no change of ownership.
The company had listed “electronic information and service provider” among its list of business areas.
Cognitive warfare and infiltration operations
The Liberty Times newspaper reported on Tuesday that officials are mulling amendments to national security laws to make it harder for China-backed companies to slip through the net using Taiwan-registered subsidiaries.
The island’s Central News Agency cited the Mainland Affairs Council as saying that it was “cooperating with the [cabinet] to handle such matters.”
While the authorities have been reluctant to ban all use of Chinese social media apps, citing a commitment to freedom of expression, Taiwan’s civil servants have been warned they will be punished if caught using the apps on work-related devices.
China has used TikTok online platforms as part of its cognitive warfare and infiltration operations under the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, according to the Mainland Affairs Council, while many governments have warned that the apps could be harvesting personal data and sending it to China.
Taiwan’s military has warned that China stepped up “cognitive warfare,” including cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, at the same time as military exercises targeting the island during a visit by United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August.
TikTok is believed to have around one billion active users worldwide, of whom 85 million are in the United States.
A technical analysis of TikTok’s source code by security research firm Internet 2-0 in July 2022 found the app was “overly intrusive” and data collection was “excessive.”
The company has repeatedly rejected security concerns, saying they are “largely fueled by misinformation.”
Youth susceptible to messaging
Chiang Ya-chyi, director of the Taiwan Legal Technology Association, said China’s state broadcaster CCTV recently took a one percent stake in ByteDance giving it “special management” powers including power of veto in board votes.
“What kind of content will it be pushing? It has to be content that is in the interests of the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army,” Chiang said.
“It’s a dangerous app, considering China’s hostility towards Taiwan, that harvests users’ personal information and decides what content they will receive.”
Chiang said TikTok and Douyin already have a strong foothold among young people in Taiwan.
“Some students talk about how there is so much content on there that they just keep scrolling and viewing, and sharing with friends and fans,” he said. “It’s low-cost, easy self-expression with low barriers to entry.”
Chiang said the addictive nature of such apps makes them a form of “digital opium,” and that the Communist Party ideology is often mixed in with other views, making it easy to miss the underlying messaging of much of the content.
Shen Ming-shih of Taiwan’s National Security Research Institute, said even schoolchildren are getting hooked on the app.
“Elementary school students are fairly impressionable, and they’re picking up language and catchphrases from TikTok now in addition to what they learn in the classroom,” Shen told Radio Free Asia. “It’s not so much the superficial phrases; we should worry about whether there are deeper messages being encoded into the brains of the next generation.”
He said a number of fake Douyin animations had been used during recent local elections in Taiwan to push anti-Taiwan propaganda.
“For example, one said that [cutting-edge Taiwanese semiconductor firm] TSMC’s investment in the United States was a bid to de-Taiwanize [the industry] and hollow out Taiwan’s [semiconductor industry],” Shen said.
“Another said the visit of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State [Daniel Kritenbrink] to China [from Dec. 11-14] showed that Taiwan was being marginalized amid a rapprochement between China and the United States.”