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US bill targeting TikTok sparks mixed reactions in China

Illinois U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the top Democrat on the House China Committee, said in a statement the committee had called for bolstering Taiwan’s self-defense. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
March 24, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A U.S. bill that if approved would force the sale of the video sharing platform TikTok has sparked mixed reactions from Chinese commentators, with some drawing parallels with Chinese internet censorship and others marveling at the heated debate around the app.

TikTok, whose parent company is China’s ByteDance, has 170 million monthly American users. It has sparked security concerns in Washington that Beijing would use the app for propaganda or to sway American public opinion, particularly leading up to November’s presidential election. 

The legislation passed Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives would ban the app in America if ByteDance doesn’t divest its controlling stake in the social media app. U.S. President Joe Biden has said he would sign the bill if it is approved by the upper house Senate.

Some Chinese social media users criticized the move, saying it was similar to censorship.

“It’s the same over there [as in China], mutual bans on everything, just that the process is more cumbersome over there,” commented @LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLsm from Guangdong, in a reference to the blocking of Twitter and Facebook for users inside the Great Firewall of internet censorship.

“There’s going to be a rush of white people trying to get over the Great Firewall [into China] now,” quipped Hantang_Lengyue_1130 from Beijing.

“From a Chinese perspective, I hope TikTok can continue to exist in the United States,” another user, 1_lowkey_1 from Gansu, commented. “From another perspective, this gives me a feeling of confusion. Can this thing really get Americans so addicted? That’s powerful.”

Forced to give Beijing user data?

Lawmakers supporting the bill say that TikTok is required under Chinese law to expose American user data to Beijing upon request and say it could be forced to alter its algorithms to promote Chinese propaganda.

TikTok has denied any interference from Beijing, and China’s foreign ministry has said there is “no evidence” of any threat to U.S. national security.

“I would prefer them to remove it than sell it — that way the American people will take up arms and fight the U.S. government to the end,” @Golden_Annunciation_Bird_999 wrote.

User @Xiao_Xianyu added from Beijing: “Rednecks are the angriest, because their main platform is about to be blocked.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Thursday accused the Washington of using “sheer robbers’ logic to try every means to snatch from others all the good things that they have.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs further hit back on Friday with a commentary titled, “The Truth About the So-Called Freedom of Speech in the United States.” 

The TikTok bill “violates the rights granted to the American people by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, suppresses and damages the freedom of more than 150 million American TikTok users, and sets a worrying precedent,” the op-ed piece said.

Protecting free speech

A U.S.-based Chinese student majoring in information technology who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals said he doesn’t use the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, citing privacy concerns.

But he said he supported others who wanted to use the app’s equivalent in the United States, and appeared not to support a legal move against the TikTok: “The rights guaranteed by the First Amendment are very important,” the student said.

“If there are individual cases of data disclosure, they can just fine them, like they do Facebook,” he said.

In Zhejiang, @The_romantic_and_talented_Mi_Duoduo thought the potential forced sale wasn’t a good idea, either.

“Prohibition will only make it impossible for the people at the bottom, and there will be more and more social unrest,” they commented.

“[TikTok] has overturned American imperialism at its root, along with its hegemony over public opinion,” commented @na_jia丶 from Guizhou, 

Meanwhile, @not_a_thief added from Hubei: “The United States was founded on a platform of freedom of speech.” 

A Washington-based software engineer who hails from China, and who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told RFA Mandarin that the best approach was to build a U.S.-company that could compete adequately with TikTok.

‘That’s not going to happen here’

James A. Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, recommended using a U.S. initial public offering, or IPO, to allow TikTok’s current owners ByteDance to cash out of the company and make a profit in doing so.

“An IPO on Wall Street would provide a vehicle for the Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) to intervene and impose conditions on the IPO to mitigate risk,” Lewis wrote in a March 13 commentary on the Center’s website.

But he warned that there is “a larger and more complicated problem of Chinese software use in U.S. apps and networks,” calling on the Department of Commerce to investigate the scope of that problem.

“The United States should manage the risk created by deep technological connections to a hostile and untrustworthy nation that is undertaking the largest espionage campaign in history,” Lewis said.

While not all Chinese technology creates risk, genuine risks can be mitigated, including those attributed to TikTok, he said.

Xia Ming, professor of political science at New York’s City University noted that LinkedIn was forced to shut down in China last year, and that the TikTok bill could be seen as a retaliatory measure. 

“If you kick me, I have to kick you back,” Xia said. But he said freedom of speech is unlikely to be affected by the move.

“The fundamental difference is that, if you listen to the Voice of America or Radio Free Asia in China, the state security police will come for you,” Xia said. “That’s not going to happen in the United States.”