US President Donald Trump on Thursday issued executive orders barring Americans from conducting business with WeChat owner Tencent Holdings and ByteDance, the Beijing-based owner of popular video-sharing app TikTok. The orders are to take effect 45 days after they were signed, which is Sept. 20.
The orders accuse WeChat of helping the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) review and remove content that it considers to be politically sensitive, and of using fabricated news to benefit itself.
The White House has accused TikTok of collecting users’ information, location data and browsing histories, which could be used by the Chinese government, and pose an economic and national-security threat to US interests.
The orders came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday stepped up the so-called “clean network” program to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from US digital networks to protect Americans’ privacy and US companies’ sensitive information from intrusions by the CCP.
They also followed efforts by the White House to pressure ByteDance into selling TikTok’s North American business to a US company by Sept. 15.
Social media platforms — whether small or large, Eastern or Western — all collect users’ information, which shows how people view, share and engage with content. Coupled with the emergence of big data analytics, social media data provide valuable insight for companies and allow platforms to provide a more tailored user experience.
However, unlike their global peers, Chinese messaging apps and social media platforms are subject to Beijing’s authoritarian rule and the CCP’s censorship. They can also be used to intimidate Chinese dissidents and political refugees living abroad or to spread disinformation to benefit the CCP.
On the surface, Trump’s executive orders only ban US companies and citizens from conducting transactions with WeChat and TikTok, and seem to suggest an intensifying technology dispute between the world’s two largest economies.
Although the orders are vaguely worded regarding what constitutes a transaction, and it remains unknown how US companies and users would be affected by the restrictions, one thing is certain: The ban on WeChat would hurt Chinese communities in the US, as well as foreigners who have professional or personal ties with China, while the restriction on TikTok is sure to upset a large number of young Americans.
The US government could still take more extreme actions against Tencent and other Chinese companies by citing national security concerns. That would indicate protracted and escalating tensions between the two nations, and suggest that Washington is pushing hard to decouple from Beijing on every front.
Furthermore, the US might urge other countries to also ban Chinese messaging and social media apps — or other kinds of software — similar to its call on its allies to stop using products made by China’s Huawei Technologies Co.
The global situation seems to be turning against China after India in June banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok and WeChat, and the UK last month backtracked from its earlier plans and banned Huawei from its 5G network deployment.
Pompeo in a speech on July 23 said that “a new grouping of like-minded” democracies would change China, while US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell in an interview on July 14 put it more bluntly, saying that a language that China can understand is “demonstrable and tangible action.”
For Taiwan, standing firmly as a member of the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’s outreach is an indispensable course of action.
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