Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 14 March 2024


The House Sends China a TikTok Post

Well, you don’t see that every day. We mean Wednesday’s overwhelming House vote, 352-65, to require Tik-Tok to sever ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or face a U.S. ban.

The social-media site last week mobilized its army of some 170 million American users to lobby Congress against the legislation. The stunt may have backfired by underlining the tangible risk that Beijing and TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance could use the platform to interfere in U.S. politics.

Take TikTok’s claim that the legislation would shut down the platform in the U.S. This is false. It gives TikTok a choice of divesting from ByteDance or losing access to American users. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States gave Grindr, the gay dating app, a similar ultimatum in 2019. Grindr’s Chinese owners chose to sell.

When Donald Trump ordered ByteDance to spin off TikTok in 2020, the platform entertained an acquisition by Microsoft. U.S. investors in recent weeks have again expressed interest in buying TikTok. Yet TikTok claims its U.S. business can’t be spun off. Why not?

ByteDance runs a version of TikTok in China called Douyin. The company could similarly silo off and sell its U.S. TikTok business. This shouldn’t be difficult since TikTok claims American user data is housed on U.S. servers overseen by Oracle engineers.

The hitch may be that TikTok’s algorithms are controlled by ByteDance engineers in China who answer to Beijing. After Mr. Trump tried to force TikTok’s sale (he later lost in court), Beijing placed export restrictions on its algorithms. “TikTok’s US operations can be sold, but not the key technology that powers the app,” the South China Morning Post reported.

It’s telling that Beijing treats TikTok algorithms as tantamount to a state secret. This is another reason not to believe TikTok’s denials that its algorithms promote anti-American and politically divisive content—and suppress posts the CCP doesn’t like.

TikTok hoovers up personal data that Beijing could use for political-influence campaigns. White House adviser John Podesta reportedly pushed for a suspension on new liquefied natural gas export projects after a video by a climate activist went viral on TikTok. Did the CCP have a hand in amplifying the video?

It’s impossible to know. Conservatives sued the Biden Administration for violating their First Amendment rights by jawboning U.S. social- media companies to censor critics of Covid vaccines. Legal discovery produced emails showing how Biden officials privately pressured the companies to take down posts. But Americans have no legal recourse if CCP officials violate speech rights or privacy by searching personal data. This ought to disturb conservatives who fret about censorship, and progressives who worry about personal privacy.

Most “no” votes on the bill came from the House circus caucus on the right (15) and progressives (50) who fear angering their young base. The bill’s conservative opponents may have been swayed by President Trump’s warning that it would help Meta, as if it’s a bigger threat than the CCP.

“There’s a lot of good and there’s a lot of bad with TikTok,” Mr. Trump said this week on CNBC, “but the thing I don’t like is that without TikTok, you can make Facebook bigger, and I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people.” All politics for Mr. Trump is personal, and he won’t forgive Meta for blocking him after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

While U.S. Big Tech companies may lean left, they aren’t motivated to harm the country. The CCP is. The bill will “come back to bite the United States,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson warned this week, adding that “this kind of bullying behavior that cannot win in fair competition disrupts companies’ normal business activity, damages the confidence of international investors” and “the normal international economic and trade order.”

“Fair competition”? Beijing bans U.S. social-media companies that won’t comply with its censorship. It raids the offices of U.S. businesses and blocks executives from leaving. Beijing could retaliate against U.S. companies that do business in the country, but this would dampen foreign investment that President Xi Jinping needs to bolster an economy suffering from his business crackdowns.

The House bill now moves to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. Senate Intelligence Committee leaders Mark Warner and Marco Rubio seem open to it, but Majority Leader Chuck Schumermerely promised to take a look. At the very least he ought to let the Members go on record with a vote.

Will Schumer kill the bill in the Senate after a 352-65 House vote?

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