The TikTok saga: Why China may regret its choices

Thursday August 6 2020


By Charles Makakala

A Chinese video-sharing app, TikTok, has been keeping the world abuzz with its quirky tunes since it was launched in 2017. Commanding over 2 billion subscribers across the world, TikTok’s bold and innovative approach has transformed how subscribers use those apps. However, TikTok – Chinese for vibrating sound – has been receiving lots of unwanted vibrations against itself lately, all thanks to its Chinese connections.

On June 29, 2020 India banned TikTok, plus many other Chinese apps, citing security and privacy concerns. Similarly, on 1st August US President Donald Trump announced his intention of banning TikTok in the US, also citing national security and privacy concerns. With Microsoft’s proposed purchase of TikTok US, Trump has given TikTok up to September 15 to sell or be banned from the US market.

Nations as varied as Australia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Japan, and the EU bloc, have expressed concerns against TikTok’s contents, data handling and security issues. As a result, they may end up taking some measures against TikTok, including banning it.

Despite the wild popularity of TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance was valued at $78 billion in March, this unwanted publicity will greatly affect its growth trajectory. In India, for example, where TikTok had 200 million users, the ban will cost TikTok over $6 billion a year on top of losing its biggest market outside of China to its competitors.

But why is this happening? And why always China?

This goes deeper than the ongoing US-China trade war. The fact that many different nations are highlighting similar issues show that the Chinese practices are now forcing its rivals to adopt a more hard-line stance against China.


Consider India.

The Indians’ decision against Chinese apps came after a border altercation in the Himalayas that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in mid-June. Clearly the ban was one of the ways India was voicing its displeasure against what had happened.

Previously pitted against China as its competitor in Asia, India’s challenge to the Chinese’s dominance of Asia has largely fizzled out. Whereas the two nations had a similar GDP per capita level a generation ago, but they have since gone separate ways – with China growing by leaps and bounds leaving India decades behind development-wise.

However, India, the birth country of the Mathematics genius Ramanujan, with a long history of being enterprising, and with a 1.4 billion people strong market with it, has great potential. The last thing that China wants is to remind Indians what they are truly capable of, because when Indians realise that a 1:5 trade balance against China doesn’t flatter them, they will do something about that.

For example, the vacuum left by the departure of TikTok, WeChat, and Alibaba, can now easily be filled by a myriad of existing Indian apps. This is a great opportunity for Mukesh Ambani’s Jio Platforms which is already making world news to make yet another big leap into its remarkable future. It appears that fate keeps taunting Mr Ambani to keep rising to greater heights.

With other nations, the main concern is what is known as ‘big data’. The main question is – can the Chinese be trusted with personal information of billions of subscribers from across the world? The Chinese laws stipulate that technology companies must submit subscribers’ data at the government’s request. These laws have been used to spy on and arrest people the Chinese regime considers dissidents, including religious leaders. While the likes of Facebook and Google have access to even more subscribers’ data, it appears that what people are more concerned with today is that data being in the Chinese hands.

Finally, lest it is forgotten – many US applications have always been blocked in China. A visitor in China is guaranteed to have a futuristic experience, but there is a degree of weirdness that tends to accompany that. You love WhatsApp? It is blocked in China. Google Search? Blocked. Facebook? Blocked. Many Western media websites? Blocked. So, as unorthodox as Trump’s proposed ban may be in the West – especially his Mafia-like request for a cut from TikTok’s sale proceeds – but seen with another eye, it is just the levelling of the playing ground, isn’t it? The Chinese have been doing the same thing for decades. And this is how Trump’s voters will see it.

Can China continue to forge its path forward while maintaining its medieval feudal mentality? Are China’s interests served better by maintaining tension with its neighbours rather than proactively resolving existing border issues? Is China’s image being enhanced by its maltreatment of dissidents? Whatever answers China provides, people of the world are right to deduce that what China does internally is what China will do externally given a chance. And given what they see today, they are right to be afraid.

The rise of China has occurred in the post-World War II world order mainly maintained by the US. It is in China’s interest to maintain that order. By stirring the pond, China is reminding others that they are too reliant on it for their products, entertainment, and technology. As a result, they will start to mobilise themselves against China. And, having very few historical friends, China cannot afford to galvanise its rivals to stand against her.

It won’t end well.