The name and the nature of TikTok suggests something fleeting. But the enduring geopolitical impact of the fight between Beijing and Washington over the future of the video-sharing app, as well as other integral internet entities, may be more profound.
The fast-moving, quickly shifting story is worthy of, well, a ticktock — a journalistic term for a timeline-style chronicle of events. Especially the most significant one, which happened on Thursday, when President Donald Trump issued executive orders strictly crimping TikTok and an even more impactful app, WeChat, which is used by about 1.2 billion people, including the global Chinese diaspora that has a sizable presence in the U.S.
Citing national- and economic-security considerations, the orders would keep people in the U.S. or its jurisdictions from transactions with ByteDance, which owns TikTok, and Tencent, which owns WeChat, after 45 days. “The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States,” Trump wrote.
The president’s pressure increases the likelihood that Beijing-based ByteDance would sell its U.S. operations to an American firm. Trump was apparently quite close to an outright ban — just as China’s “Great Firewall” blocks Facebook, Google and several other Western sites — but backed off when fellow Republicans reportedly talked him out of it. The group included South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who tweeted: “Have an American company like Microsoft take over TikTok. Win-win. Keeps competition alive and data out of the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
But far from laissez-faire, like previous presidents from his party, Trump directly interjected himself into the deal (but not artfully, belying his book title). On Monday, he called for a cut of the sale for the U.S. government for “making it possible for this deal to happen,” raising the ire of the Chinese government and people at a time when the U.S. is pushing back against aggressive Chinese business practices.
Trump’s threat, an editorial in the Communist Party-backed China Daily newspaper read, was “theft” and “bullying,” and China has “plenty of ways to respond if the administration carries out its planned smash and grab.”
Suggesting a cut “undermines the international trade and investment system based on transparent laws and reliable enforcement of those laws,” Prof. Paul Vaaler, the John and Bruce Mooty Chair in Law and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said in an interview. “It’s an arbitrary and capricious political partisan act on behalf of electoral advantage that undermines a system based on rule of law,” Vaaler added.
The two driving dynamics of Trump’s approach to the China technology front are “fear and opportunism,” Ryan Hass, a fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asian Policy Studies, said in an e-mail exchange. “The administration is concerned that Chinese authorities will have access to personal data of American citizens that Chinese tech companies collect. At the same time, they also saw an opportunity to kneecap China’s first globally competitive technology firm, and they took it.”
The kneecapping led some social-media users in China to accuse TikTok’s founder Zhang Yiming of “kneeling” to the United States. The online abuse led Zhang to restrict access to his personal account on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
That there is a Chinese version of Twitter reflects the fact that “there is basically a splinternet rather than an internet; one led by China, one led by the U.S.,” said Hung Tran, a nonresident senior fellow in global business and economics at the Atlantic Council.
In effect, said Ian Bremmer, the founder and president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, “You’re going to be using 5G that is either a Chinese system or a Western system.” What this will mean, Bremmer said, is that the “data ecosystem” around the web — “the filters, the algorithms that actually adapt your wants, your desires, your behaviors, the filters that determine what kind of products you buy and information you receive, how you think about the world, the people you connect to — will not be one system, it will be two systems, and that is probably the most significant and important tribalizing trend in the world today.”
The tribalism runs counter to another trend defining these times: globalization.
“This really does unwind globalization,” Bremmer said. “We’ve focused on how goods and services and people and ideas and data are moving faster and faster across borders. … And this turn of the most advanced part of the global economy away from globalization and toward a technology Cold War” that is being fought as zero-sum — “we win/they lose” — as opposed to the win-win ethos ostensibly undergirding trade deals.
“In some ways,” Bremmer continued, “that might be the most significant change in the way we think about the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
The sun set on the long twilight struggle between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. without direct conflict. Whether the technological Cold War becomes a broader geopolitical one remains to be seen. But the Atlantic Council’s Tran believes it could bleed beyond the tech and trade sector.
“If you put that into context of more geopolitical conflicts like the South China Sea,” Tran said, “it might make conflicts like that more difficult to resolve.”
And yet maritime claims may actually be easier conflicts to contend with because of professional militaries, said Bremer, who expressed more concern over the deepening divide not just between governments, but between people.
“What worries me is the broader future,” Bremmer said. “When you really break all of our data into two different systems you create an ‘other,’ and one thing we know about the history of the planet is that we tend to dehumanize people we have no contact with, no understanding of, no experience of.
“I worry that the overall nationalism, our willingness to demonize the Chinese, and their willingness to dehumanize us — that could politicize other parts of the relationship that we need to cooperate on,” Bremer said, listing climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, trade and other matters.
“It means that the response of the world is going to be much more suboptimal that it would have been.”
Suboptimal could describe nearly every event or trend today, even before an accelerating crisis in U.S.-China relations. That it’s being amplified by apps meant to bring people together makes it even more ominous.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.