The sordid geopolitical saga of TikTok

Mar 20, 2024
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The US considers TikTok a national security threat. It wants to ban TikTok or transfer its ownership to an American company. In doing so, it is displaying the very behaviour that that it ascribes to China and of which it does not approve.

This is clearly reflected in the statement of the US ambassador to China reported in a CNA article (US ambassador says Beijing stance on TikTok ban ‘supremely ironic’; 15th of March 2024) in which he was quoted as having said, “… that Beijing’s position on a potential TikTok ban in the US was “supremely ironic” given the ruling Communist Party’s censorship of online platforms within its borders.” His position and rationale seems to be that the US, a democracy, is fully justified in banning TikTok because the Chinese Communist Party censors online platforms. Supremely ironic?

The whopping irony is that in trying to justify the US’s action, he is saying that “We can do the same to you”. In other words, it is “tit for tat” that makes us do what China does. What about the much vaunted principles of democracy? Is that thrown out of the window once the US is challenged, not by a real threat of security but by a threat of being bested at business. Putting it undiplomatically, he is essentially saying that we are going to be “more like you”. Call such an irony upon an irony an oxymoron (democratic socialism?) if you like but it reads like “socialism with American characteristics”.

There are really two dimensions to the issue that are conflated in order to confuse and justify. There is the business dimension which indicates that TikTok is mouth wateringly successful as a competitor. There is the security dimension which is drummed up to make it a national security threat in the attempt to manufacture consent. In both of these, there is a violation of democratic practice. If there is a security risk, one would expect a country that boasts of social justice to prove it with real evidence, not with speculation and casting of aspersions. The “innocent until proven guilty” maxim has been turned on its head. The CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean, had already been grilled unceremoniously for more than five hours on the 23rd of March 2023 by a US Congressional Committee on TikTok.

Some of what he said, or reported to have said, as reported in The Guardian is cited below:

• Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country.
• Chew responded that TikTok is global in nature, not available in mainland China, and headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles.
• There are more than 150 million Americans who love our platform, and we know we have a responsibility to protect them.
• He defended TikTok’s privacy practices, stating they are are in line with those of other social media platforms, adding that in many cases the app collects less data than its peers.
• In an effort to deflect concerns about Chinese influence, TikTok has pledged to relocate all US user data to domestic servers through an effort titled Project Texas, a plan that would also allow US tech firm Oracle to scrutinise TikTok’s source code and act as a third-party monitor.

The US has not been able to provide any evidence that TikTok has shared its users’ information with the government of China; nor that the American platform has any weakness in the system that would allow information to be sequestered. It has relied on the idea, essentially a sleight of hand, that the safest way to ensure data security is to have the business transferred from its Chinese owner, ByteDance, to an American one.

Likewise, the European Union has taken measures to curb the imports of Chinese products such as electric vehicles, batteries or solar panels by claiming that they are unfairly subsidised by the Chinese government. In a short statement on the Inflation Reduction Act, the Financial Times “The US was for decades the exemplar of free market globalisation. That changed with Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ agenda. President Joe Biden’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act continues the push for re-industrialisation by using tax credits, loans and grants in a bid to create a domestic clean energy supply chain.” Of the twin Chips and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, the Financial Review says, “the two laws offered more than $US400 billion ($624 billion) in tax credits, loans and subsidies, all designed to spark development of a domestic cleantech and semiconductor supply chain.” Government intervention in business has a long history. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, we learn of the Dutch and British East India Companies which worked hand-in-glove with their governments in breaking trade barries in the countries in the East and colonising them. Recently the Japanese Sogo Shoshas, and the Korean Chaebol that have been closely associated with and supported by their governments. The free market economy is presently threatened with extinction by the people who innovated it. A definition provided by Wikipedia serves to clarify the concept:

A capitalist free-market economy is an economic system where prices for goods and services are set freely by the forces of supply and demand and are expected by its supporters to reach their point of equilibrium without intervention by government policy.

In all the sordid geopolitical saga of TikTok, Huawei, electric vehicles, batteries, solar panels and the Belt and Road Initiative, there seems to be no proper free-market capitalism practiced by both sides of the geopolitical divide. The only solace that the powerless onlookers get is the undeniable fact that we are all alike. “More like us” or “More like them” are just euphemisms.

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