Over the weekend, TikTok began filling up with testimonials—some of them emotional, a lot of them just silly—like this one from a grandma with 2.5 million followers who is maybe best known for putting some Mentos into a soda bottle and letting the concoction explode all over her face.
These videos were spurred by the president’s assertion, on Friday, that he was going to ban TikTok. He’s alleged the Chinese-owned company is a security threat. The president may be backing off his initial threat to ban TikTok, but that still leaves an open question: What do we do about this app? I asked Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who covers China for Axios.
About a year ago, she downloaded TikTok and planned to sign up, but she ended up deleting the social media app off her phone. As a journalist, she’s already had her email hacked by the Chinese government. She worries about the app’s data collection and that she could be targeted. But watching the Trump administration debate the idea of deleting TikTok for everyone else in the U.S., Allen-Ebrahimian thinks we have to understand how we got to this point and what the risks are—whatever we end up doing. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Over the weekend, the president got a lot of attention for suggesting he wanted to ban TikTok. And it sounds like you’re not sure that’s such a far out idea.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: The idea of our government taking action to protect our society from TikTok is absolutely not a far out idea and is, I think, appropriate. The problem with banning something is we don’t have any kind of special legal or decision-making structure about how to ban a social media app. This is kind of uncharted territory for the U.S. And it’s a really delicate thing, because if you look at China 10 years ago, when they were banning Facebook and Twitter and lots of other websites, that was universally viewed as censorship, as a threat to free speech, and as a threat to an open world. And for the U.S. to ban TikTok would in a sense be emulating that.
I’ve been struck by all the folks out there putting out memes preemptively mourning TikTok. And I think it’s hard for people to square in their minds: How could the platform that hosts silly videos be a national security threat?
I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One of them is related to China. And one of them isn’t. A sort of separate discussion is: How much data do we want these big companies to have? And what do they do with that data? And how do we govern that as a society? But the other part of it that’s specific to TikTok is that the Chinese government, and not the U.S. government, would be the one that would have access to that data. And that’s deeply concerning.
You can think I as an individual don’t want the Chinese government to have my information. But there’s a larger societywide concern. We know that the Russian government sought to meddle in the 2016 elections by manipulating social media. We have seen over the past year that the Chinese government is learning from Russia. They have undertaken several campaigns on Twitter, most notably, to feed disinformation. So they’re actively seeking to change narratives, to feed conspiracy theories into societies outside of their country. And having direct access to 160 million Americans’ social media accounts—how they interact with information, what they make go viral. Having access to that data on a mass scale makes us as a society very vulnerable to Chinese disinformation, especially as we’re coming up to our elections.
Can we talk a little bit about some of the evidence that TikTok is being used for data harvesting, like with the Uighur situation in China?
ByteDance, which is the Chinese parent company that owns TikTok, assisted Chinese government efforts to identify and locate Uighur women of childbearing age. And once they were located, they were rounded up and some of them were put into camps and some of them went through a forced sterilization process as part of the campaign of genocide that the Chinese government is perpetrating in Xinjiang. Why did ByteDance assist with that? ByteDance is required by law to hand over any data to the Chinese government if requested. And they have essentially no power to fight back. The other part of that is that according to China’s security and intelligence laws, if you are the subject of this request, if you have to comply with the Chinese government request to hand over data information and provide assistance, you are also required to keep that assistance a secret.
That’s not just for Chinese companies, right? Any employees who physically work in China have to abide by these Chinese laws.
This is the same situation as Zoom. Zoom is definitely an American company, but they have 700 research and development employees in China. All 700 of those employees are subject to China’s intelligence and cybersecurity laws, which means that any one of them could be approached and asked to give assistance. I’m not saying this has happened, but I’m saying that the laws make this possible—they could put in a back door, or they could give any kind of data that they have access to to the Chinese government. And again, they’re required by law to keep that assistance a secret. So that is one severe weakness that TikTok also has. In addition, the Chinese government could put pressure on the company by saying, look, we’re going to kick you out of your building. We’re going to make life difficult for you, because they have leverage over the company.
What if an American company just purchased TikTok and took over its operation? Reportedly Microsoft has been in talks to do that. Would that solve the problem here?
It would alleviate the problem. It wouldn’t solve the entire problem. In the short term, it would remove that legal pressure that any Chinese company is under from these laws that I’ve mentioned. However, there are two things that it wouldn’t relieve. One of them is the TikTok employees who are based in China. And second, it doesn’t solve the structural problem, which is that this data still exists. It’s still being collected. We don’t have a sweeping data privacy law. I do think that a sale of the company would be the best possible way that anyone has so far suggested. It would allow TikTok influencers to continue to use it, and it would greatly mitigate that systemic risk. But it wouldn’t eliminate it.
If what’s happening with TikTok is kind of an indicator of what’s happening in the wider U.S.-China relationship, I wonder what it’s telling you.
If you want to look at the U.S.-China relationship over the past six months, there has been a rapid deterioration of bilateral relations. The trade deal has really sort of unraveled. And there has been a vicious downward spiral of this tit-for-tat behavior—with the media, kicking out each other’s journalists, with closing the consulates. There’s been this rapid deterioration. Part of the reason for that is that the China superhawks in the administration have been tempered for several years by the need of the administration to keep reasonably good ties with China in order to work on the negotiations for the trade deal. Since the trade deal has fallen apart and since the Trump campaign seems to have made China’s role in the coronavirus a major platform of the reelection strategy, that barrier has been removed.
It’s funny because you’ve really made the case that dealing with TikTok is essential and also, of course, dealing with the Uighur human rights abuses is essential. So while everything is happening very fast and very chaotically, is this a positive outcome or a negative outcome?
What’s so difficult is, despite the perhaps lack of strategy in how the administration appears to be rolling out some of these initiatives, they’re not wrong to view the Chinese Communist Party as a very serious threat to global freedom. And I say that simply by looking at what Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping has said himself. He’s basically said that they want to expand. They want to promote their model around the world. They want to take center stage in global affairs. And they have shown time and again that they are very willing to treat the citizens of other countries the way they treat their own people, which is with profound suppression. And I personally don’t want that future. So what do we do?