TikTok: The popular giant that dominates the world and poisons relations between China and the West

While the US and Europe cite security risks and take measures to ban the app from the devices of their staff, Beijing sees it as a ploy to curb its technological development

Streamers broadcast live for Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, in Guilin, China.JADE GAO (AFP)

There is a new source of tension between China and the West: TikTok. The social network, which has more than one billion active users around the world, has positioned itself as the sixth most used on the planet in just five years, an extraordinary success that is made even more significant by the fact that it is the product of America’s biggest geopolitical rival. The meteoric rise of the platform, owned by Chinese technology group ByteDance, has taken place alongside an increase in mistrust on both sides of the Atlantic due to concerns that Beijing could use it, Trojan horse-style, to access user data and promote its own interests. Amid growing scrutiny, Washington, Brussels and Ottawa have banned government employees from using it on their official cellphones, a decision that infuriated the Asian giant, which considers the measure a “politically motivated” ploy to strengthen the “repression against Chinese companies” and curb the development of the world’s second-largest economy.

“How insecure can the US, the world’s greatest superpower, be to fear a young person’s favorite app like that?” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said last week during a press conference held the day after the White House announced that it had set a 30-day deadline for federal agencies to remove TikTok from all government-issued devices.

The European Union faced similar criticism a day later, after the European Parliament joined the EU Commission and Council in banning the app from the devices of their staff, arguing that it carries a risk to privacy and security. “The EU says it is the most open market in the world, yet [...] such practice undermines global confidence in the EU business environment. The EU needs to act on its words,” stated Mao, and added: “It needs to provide an open, fair, transparent and non-discriminatory business environment for all foreign companies.”

An old threat

Concerns about whether TikTok presents cybersecurity threats are not new in the US. Former president Donald Trump nearly succeeded in banning it from the entire country in the summer of 2020, and since Joe Biden took office, the Committee on Foreign Investment of the United States has been examining its technology. Meanwhile, TikTok has only grown in influence and popularity: even after being banned in India, it was the most downloaded social network in the world in the first quarter of 2022, and according to a Google study from July last year, it is the search engine of choice for 40% of people born between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s, otherwise known as Gen Z.

Part of TikTok’s appeal can be explained by its ability to perfectly predict the videos that a person wants to see through the use of a sophisticated algorithm. Thanks to the collection of data about their tastes and viewing patterns, the app offers users the content that best suits their interests. Independent investigations have found that in order to do this, TikTok has the ability to store contact lists, calendars, hard drives and locations every hour. Although this is similar to the practices of large American technology companies such as Google or Meta, the concerns of some governments have focused on the fact that Beijing could use the national security law to demand that ByteDance share that information – an accusation that the company has repeatedly denied.

A social phenomenon

The version of TikTok made for the Chinese market, Douyin, is a true phenomenon. Out of 600 million daily users, 80% are between 19 and 40 years old and approximately 65% live in secondary cities. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that we the Chinese get the news through Douyin. My mother sends me news that she sees on the app every day,” said a Beijing resident in his thirties whose family lives in the south. Nonetheless, despite belonging to the same house, Douyin and TikTok are completely separated from each other: their users cannot interact, the two platforms are subject to different policies and registration processes and the same search returns different results in each one. Douyin does not publish figures, but according to estimates made by the Chinese digital newspaper The Paper, in 2022 it was valued at around $49 billion.

In the elevator, in the subway, in a cafeteria – anywhere you go, there is usually someone using the app, whose uses go far beyond those of TikTok. The Chinese version has become a powerful platform for e-commerce and consumer services, even having its own payment method. Carrie Feng, a 26-year-old streamer from Wuhan, said that during the Covid-19 pandemic she got a job selling clothes through the app, with which she doubled what she earned at a previous job at the university. What she earned depended on her sales and customers not returning orders. Three clicks during one of her broadcasts were enough to buy a product through Douyin; seven hours later the order was on its way, arriving at its destination in a matter of days.

“The job of a streamer is very hard. You have to talk for more than five hours a day and that’s very tiring, both for the mind and for the body,” Feng said. “I started recording at 6.30 am, which meant getting up at 4.00 am to put on my makeup. I finished work at 3.30pm. That pace affected my health.” However, she admits feeling “passionate” about her work: “I love sharing with others the things that make me feel good.” Today, she still feeds her own channel in which she makes recommendations on water sports.

A group of fans follow the live broadcast on Douyin of the group Modern Brothers, in the city of Dandong, in 2018.
A group of fans follow the live broadcast on Douyin of the group Modern Brothers, in the city of Dandong, in 2018.QIBUZI (Visual China Group via Getty)

Diplomatic tension

China is highly critical of moves from the West to curb the reach of its flagship application. “The US [is] vehemently making a fuss about so-called ‘threats’ it is confronting. Earlier this month, it was balloons, and now, it is TikTok,” lashed out an op-ed piece in the Chinese nationalist newspaper Global Times last Tuesday. Analysts close to Beijing believe that Washington’s real concern is “the vast internet market that TikTok occupies with its unique technology and the enormous profits it creates.” According to eMarketer, 45.3% of all US social media users use the app, compared to 24.2% worldwide. “This competition initiated by Washington is shown at two levels, one is to curb high-end technology exports to China, to weaken the competitiveness of Chinese manufacturing and technology, to disrupt the supply chain and industrial chain, and at the same time to make every effort to upgrade American high technology so that Chinese technology cannot compete with America in the global market,” opined last Wednesday in Global Times Ding Gang, senior editor of the Communist Party-owned People’s Daily.

But, in addition to cybersecurity, the power of TikTok is such that it causes a second, additional fear: What type of content dominates the international youth market, and to what extent can it shape the thinking of the new generations? More than a billion people access the TikTok and Douyin platforms every day, and although censorship does not seem to be as recurrent on TikTok as it is on Douyin, pro-human rights associations accuse ByteDance of regularly following orders from Beijing. Videos related to the 2019 Hong Kong protests were hardly seen on TikTok, and those who denounce the alleged crackdown on the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang often end up banned. In addition, even though the access of the Russian state media Russia Today and Sputnik has been blocked in the international app, in China they have tens of thousands of followers.

The role that the platform has played in forming points of view among its users around the world has been so important that many have come to call it “the TikTok War.” Despite the fact that from the beginning ByteDance has tried to position itself as an “impartial” agent, and that just four days after the start of the invasion it had removed more than 3,500 videos and 12,100 comments that were “inappropriate” or that “spread disinformation” from Douyin, to this day, the only message circulating in China about the war in Ukraine is the official one from the authorities, in which the main culprit of the conflict is NATO.

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