The World

TikTok Could Have Been China’s Nintendo

Instead of a soft power win for Beijing, the blockbuster app has become a lightning rod for superpower conflict.

Young man and a woman wearing facemasks dance for a camera phone in front of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Actor Marie Zaccagnino and musican Sean Sheridan dance and record themselves with a mobile phone for a ‘TikTok’ video in front of the Brooklyn Bridge on May 26, 2020 in New York City. ANGELA WEISS/Getty Images

Two events occurred in New York City in the fall of 1985 that would profoundly transform the relationship between the United States and Japan. In September, international negotiators meeting at Plaza Hotel agreed to a plan to depreciate the U.S. dollar in relation to the yen, addressing a trade imbalance that U.S. policymakers blamed for decimating American manufacturing. The following month, a Japanese product arrived for the first time in the U.S. to be sold in a handful of New York stores: the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Today, when China is seen as America’s main global adversary, it can be hard to remember the level of hostility elicited by Japan in the United States from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. A former wartime enemy—Pearl Harbor was still in the living memory of middle-aged Americans—had become an economic competitor, and “Japan Bashing” manifested itself in everything from public demolishing of Toyotas to movies like Gung Ho and Rising Sun in which the Japanese were depicted as emotionless automatons or sinister villains. Then as with China today, Asian Americans were subjected to racist and sometimes deadly hostility, whether they were actually Japanese or not.

It would be a stretch to say Super Mario changed all this. (It certainly helped that the U.S. economy recovered while Japan went into a prolonged slump known as the “lost decade,” making it seem like a less potent economic threat.) But the growing popularity of Japanese culture, from video games to anime to manga to Hello Kitty, undoubtedly helped change perceptions about the country, particularly among younger Americans. It was a textbook example of what political scientists call “soft power”—global influence based on having an attractive national culture and ideology rather than military force.

Matt Alt, author of the new book Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World, says the importance of Nintendo in this story should not be underestimated. “It was made in Japan, it was obviously Japanese, and it compelled you to consume Japanese content, which we did in droves,” he says. “It profoundly transformed our tastes, which is why modern internet culture is so Japan-inflected in many ways.”

The example of Japan’s cultural soft power is worth keeping in mind today, as TikTok, owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, has found itself in the center of a wider conflict between the United States and China. Amid wide-ranging tensions involving military competition in the South China Sea, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, trade and intellectual property disputes, and the handling of the coronavirus, the video-sharing app better known for launching viral dance crazes has taken on a surprisingly prominent role. The brewing dispute over the app went nuclear on Friday, when President Trump suggested he would use an executive order to ban the app within the United States. ByteDance is now reportedly planning to divest the U.S. operations of TikTok entirely.

The situation has been building to this for some time, with American policymakers raising concerns that the Chinese government could use the app to collect data on its American users. The House voted in July to bar TikTok from government-issued devices used by federal employees. Some American companies, like Wells Fargo, have also banned the app from corporate devices. ByteDance is also currently the target of a national security investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.

India already banned TikTok in June amid a border dispute with China. And Pakistan is considering doing the same, citing “immoral, obscene, and vulgar content.” It’s not exactly clear whether Trump actually has the legal means to ban TikTok, but at the very least, he can damage its global brand and help make it toxic to investors.

Trump’s threat comes amid reports that Microsoft is in talks to buy TikTok from ByteDance. TikTok has been working for some time now to de-emphasize its Chinese origins with steps like bringing in American CEO Kevin Mayer from Disney, and withdrawing from Hong Kong in order to avoid complying with government data requests under a new Beijing-backed national security law. Faced with intimations that it might misuse personal data, the company has stressed repeatedly that it stores Americans’ information in the United States and Singapore, not China. But this has done little to assuage critics in Washington, including both Republicans and Democrats.

Could it have happened differently? Is there a world in which, rather than the association with China being a liability for TikTok, the association with TikTok is a soft power win for China?

Chinese-made products have been a ubiquitous part of American life for decades now, but TikTok is different. It’s not only the most successful Chinese consumer software product, it’s arguably China’s most successful cultural export.

China may be an economic and military superpower, but that hasn’t translated into cultural influence. There’s no mainland Chinese equivalent of global pop culture behemoths like India’s Bollywood, South Korea’s K-Pop, or Mexico’s telenovelas—all of which have risen, along with Japan’s exports, to challenge American cultural hegemony in recent years.

While China’s economic rise and its emergence as a film market has undoubtedly transformed Hollywood’s production and marketing practices, China’s own film exports have been less successful. (It turns out American audiences aren’t that interested in watching Matt Damon in a Chinese nationalist parable featuring aliens.)

TikTok, on the other hand, truly is a cultural behemoth—the seventh most downloaded app of the decade and increasingly where new trends in pop music, fashion, and comedy emerge into the zeitgeist. So why isn’t the fact that millions of young people around the world are glued to a Chinese app more of a benefit for China?

For one thing, unlike, say, Nintendo, there’s nothing particularly Chinese about the content on TikTok. Before the latest controversy, many of its users may not have even realized they were using a Chinese product. Aynne Kokas, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who studies the global reach of Chinese media, says this is likely deliberate. While Chinese blockbuster films like Wandering Earth and Wolf Warrior tend to be too nationalistic for global tastes, “TikTok has been successful because what people are excited about is the platform, rather than the content itself,” she says.

But there is precedent for a piece of media technology, as opposed to content, serving as a form of cultural influence: the Sony Walkman, introduced in 1979. Even though its early American users were more likely listening to Madonna or Mozart than Japanese music, “because the WalkMan was such a breakout device that was so different than what came before, people started to associate that kind of high-tech lifestyle with Japan,” says Alt.

On the other hand, users only listen to a WalkMan. TikTok also listens to you—collecting information including users’ “location data, IP address, device type, browsing and search histories, and content shared with others on the platform.” It’s far from the only app that collects this data, but in theory, TikTok is obligated to turn over user data to the Chinese government—a worrying prospect given the Chinese government’s aggressive surveillance practices, both at home and abroad. While ByteDance maintains that there’s a firewall between its global and Chinese divisions and that user data is safe, Kokas notes that “anyone who’s ever studied a corporation knows that there are a lot of potential areas for overlap.” TikTok’s efforts now to assure governments and users that their data is safe feel too little too late.

On the other hand, given the current political moment, maybe there was nothing TikTok could have done to avoid controversy.

Kaiser Kuo, a Chinese American tech journalist and podcaster, and former spokesperson for the Chinese search engine Baidu, agrees that TikTok’s data collection has been aggressive but feels surveillance fears are overblown. “We have not seen any evidence so far that they’ve done anything nefarious. This is about our deeply emotional response to China. It’s straight-up Sinophobia,” he said in an interview prior to Trump’s ban threat. “If TikTok, which is just pure greasy kids’ stuff, is drawing so much fire, it’s hard to believe that anything wouldn’t.”

It’s also not clear that China really wants to develop globally successful consumer tech products. Kuo notes that TikTok’s success is something of an anomaly, since “the really successful apps in China, the very things that made them successful would hinder them from success in other markets.” Baidu, for instance, may be an excellent search engine but its compliance with Chinese censorship laws makes it difficult to export. The messaging service WeChat is an all-in-one swiss army knife app for its Chinese users, facilitating everything from payment to ridesharing to food ordering. Given its ubiquity, it’s also a powerful tool for surveillance and censorship, which is why the international edition is so pared down that it’s essentially a WhatsApp knock-off. TikTok’s domestic Chinese counterpart, Douyin, also boasts some micropayment and search features—in addition to censorship compliance—that are absent from the global version.

Unfortunately for TikTok, the current moment isn’t just a trade war. China is also a military rival, as well as an authoritarian country building a deeply alarming high-tech surveillance state and carrying out the mass imprisonment of ethnic minorities. These are conflicts that won’t be bridged by a video sharing app, no matter how addictive.

As many commentators have now pointed out, the current moment is less like the Japan-bashing of the 1980s than the Cold War—a military and ideological conflict as well as an economic one. We’re going back to a time when geopolitical rivals view each other’s pop culture exports as threats. One difference is that during the Cold War, it was mainly kids in the Communist world skirting censorship laws to access western music, movies, or literature. If the Trump administration bans U.S. companies from working with TikTok, young Americans are likely to find ways to get their hands on an app denounced by their government as a tool of the enemy.

If this does happen, it will have the ironic effect of moving the world closer to the vision of internet sovereignty long advocated by China, Russia, and other authoritarian countries—one where the internet is effectively split by national boundaries into closed information silos, sometimes dubbed the “splinternet”—giving national governments close to full control over the data produced and consumed by their citizens. This is a long way from the vision of internet freedom once espoused by U.S. officials like Hillary Clinton—a vision these countries found deeply threatening. After all, most U.S. social media platforms remain banned in China.

Now, a world in which American and Chinese teens can dance to the same memes is even farther away.

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