Politics & Society

The Geopolitics of TikTok

Once the domain of teenage dancers, pranksters, and aspiring influencers, TikTok has become a lightning rod in disputes among global powers. The Chinese video app is in the crosshairs of policymakers whose options to move against Beijing are limited.

China’s relationships with the United States and India have always been complicated, but all have an interest in keeping tensions under control. For Washington, trade relations with Beijing are a critical consideration, as is Chinese influence over North Korea. For New Delhi, economic dependence on its neighbor and largest trading partner, alongside a shared responsibility for maintaining regional stability, provide the necessary release valves when nationalists in both countries need to let off steam.

Last month’s direct military confrontation between Chinese and Indian soldiers in the disputed border region of Ladakh has tested restraint in New Delhi. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has indicated that it will stand its ground while avoiding escalating the standoff to an all-out conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers. In the U.S., the White House’s list of grievances with Beijing begins with its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, followed closely by the ongoing trade war.

As these developments challenge the status quo, officials in Washington and New Delhi search for policy levers that will constrain Chinese behavior without jeopardizing the fine line each must walk. They seem to have found a lever to pull in TikTok.

ByteDance and Backdoors

TikTok is an app owned and developed by the Chinese company ByteDance. But to assuage concerns about Beijing’s influence, TikTok recently appointed former Disney executive Kevin Mayer as CEO of its hugely successful enterprise. The app has been downloaded more than two billion times, including 315 million times between January and March 2020, a record for most downloads in a single calendar quarter. TikTok denizens create short videos between 15 and 60 seconds in duration, while their followers like, share and replicate the content ad nauseum. To some, this may seem innocent enough. To others, TikTok represents a threat to national security.

According to TikTok’s privacy policy, the app hoovers up users’ location data, IP address, device type, browsing and search histories, and content shared with others on the platform. For those less cautious, there are opt-ins that allow TikTok to grab users’ phone and social network contacts, personal information, and credit card details. Company officials have argued that TikTok’s data collection is consistent with the policies of other social media platforms such as Facebook’s and Google’s, so there is no reason for alarm. Setting aside the dubious data practices of other tech giants, TikTok also raises suspicion due to the prospect of the government in Beijing exploiting backdoors to seize data from the company.

Setting aside the dubious data practices of other tech giants, TikTok also raises suspicion due to the prospect of the government in Beijing exploiting backdoors to seize data from the company.

Critics often point to Article 28 of China’s Cybersecurity Law to justify their concerns. The article states, “Network operators shall provide technical support and assistance to public security organs and national security organs that are safeguarding national security and investigating criminal activities in accordance with the law.” That, in short, means the company must turn over to the Chinese government any data it requests for a criminal investigation. TikTok executives insist that their data, housed in the U.S. and Singapore, would not be surrendered to Chinese authorities, but it is unclear how they could avoid doing so.

Fool Me Once…

To understand the U.S. government’s position on this, look no further than FBI Director Christopher Wray, who recently warned, “If you are an American adult, it is more likely than not that China has stolen your personal data.” Despite TikTok’s assurances, the Trump administration views the app as a threat to national security and a tool for espionage against Americans. The Departments of State and Defense have banned TikTok from government devices, and the military has followed suit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly said that the U.S. may ban the app and its parent company, and ByteDance is already the target of a national security investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS). As the debate over TikTok’s fate in the U.S. goes on, 61 million monthly active users continue to flock to it.

“If you are an American adult, it is more likely than not that China has stolen your personal data.”

India has made the connection between TikTok and its national security explicit. New Delhi alleges that China uses the app to harm Indian defenses. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has issued a statement noting that the compiling of data collected by TikTok and “its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defense of India… ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India.” The country views the digital space as the new front in a war with China that simmers in the Himalayan border region, and will increasingly be waged online. Officials in New Delhi see this as a struggle to control messaging in a fiercely nationalistic environment, and in response to the threat India has banned 59 Chinese-owned apps that account for 4.9 billion downloads in India alone. It also has proscribed public telecommunications cooperation with two Chinese providers of network infrastructure, ZTE and Huawei.

Careful Choreography

For now, Indian TikTokers have moved their performances to Instagram and YouTube, while their American counterparts are directing their time and energy towards the #savetiktok campaign (382 million views and counting). Perhaps we should be grateful that this episode of great power competition is relatively benign given the potential stakes. There will undoubtedly be economic losses for ByteDance (and China by proxy) and proportional retaliation against Indian and American interests, but that is all part of a geopolitical dance. India and the U.S. have managed to choreograph delicate movements that seek to appease domestic constituencies while punishing China without spinning out of control.


Anthony T. Silberfeld

Director, Transatlantic Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation