By Leo Yu
What is TikTok’s problem? The New York Times accurately answered this question: It all comes down to China.
Let’s face it, the national security concern about TikTok appears to be tenuous at best. The incident that has been cited repeatedly to support this concern is one that several employees at TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance in Beijing, inappropriately obtained the data of several American TikTok users, including two reporters and a few of their associates. ByteDance acknowledged the wrongdoing and swiftly fired the responsible employees.
Nobody, including the U.S. government, has alleged that the involved employees leaked the information of the American reporters to the Chinese government. Actually, to date, there is no public evidence that Beijing has actually harvested TikTok’s commercial data for intelligence or other purposes. Nevertheless, this story has become a Chinese spy story. “China” appears 12 times in Forbes’s exclusive report, with a flashy title, “EXCLUSIVE: TikTok Spied on Forbes Journalists.” This story evidently led to a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation.
An incident such as this likely would not gain such a news headline or a DOJ investigation if the company involved had no tie to China. After all, social media platforms’ rampant data collection is not exclusive to TikTok. Data collection is a baseline business strategy for many, if not all, social media networks — it directly links to targeted ad promotion, a major profit source. TikTok’s trouble is not data collecting or the mishandling of it. It is in trouble because of its original sin: It is owned by the Chinese.
To many Americans, nothing positive can come from China. The Chinese were the odd-looking, inferior cheap laborers in the 1800s and 1900s, and unfair competitors who took away many blue-collar American jobs in the late 1900s and early 2000s. Now, they are helpers of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which, according to many U.S. politicians, intelligence officials and ordinary Americans, has become the No.1 enemy of America. President Xi Jinping’s visit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week, to discuss Ukraine and other topics, adds fuel to this fire of suspicion. Thus, a Chinese engineer’s mishandling of Americans’ data is, by default, a national security concern, since this engineer has unquestionable ties to the CCP.
This “unquestionable ties” mentality has harmed many Chinese living in America, including Chinese Americans. The Justice Department’s failed China Initiative was based on this mentality, leading to racial profiling against scientists of Chinese descent, and may have significantly harmed research collaborations.
This mentality arises from the concept that the Chinese are confusing, unintellectual people who cannot think independently, which makes them victims of CCP brainwashing and subject to its control. Only we can distinguish ourselves from our government and political parties. With this mindset, for example, a true American can be a Republican who opposes the January 6 insurrection or a southerner who firmly condemns slavery. But the Chinese simply cannot. This is orientalism in the 21st century.
TikTok’s original sin — its link to China — will determine its fate in America. The U.S. government will not treat it equally to other platforms. Facebook’s association with Cambridge Analytica’s data collection, which was found to be engaging in the 2016 election, did not lead to a bipartisan momentum to shut it down, despite Mark Zuckerberg’s acknowledgement that Meta, his new company brand for Facebook, did not do enough to curb misinformation and foreign interference in American elections. Rupert Murdoch, an Australian national who owns Fox News, has said that its hosts promoted false narratives during the 2020 U.S. election. Few people, however, have labeled Fox News a national security concern and the DOJ has not initiated an investigation of the network.
Meanwhile, TikTok’s competitors cultivate its original Chinese sin, aiming to preclude it from the American market. TikTok has been dominating the social media market and has been the most downloaded app in the world for two years. Reels, launched by Meta to compete with TikTok, is hardly thriving. Since 2022, Meta reportedly has invested significant resources in D.C. to create a national campaign against TikTok. Since then, TikTok has become a target — concerns about it range from national security to unhealthy internet use by American teenagers. Other platforms, such as YouTube, have been suspiciously quiet during this TikTok debacle. The bipartisan position against TikTok is not a coincidence; it appears to be a textbook example of corporate America’s lobbying power.
TikTok probably will be banned eventually, because this is a rare bipartisan consensus, and nobody wants to be labeled as soft on China in today’s political atmosphere. The tenuousness of the national security concern will not save TikTok. The Chinese have a proverb: He who has a mind to beat his dog will easily find his stick.
Chinese living in America should be on alert. There has never been a clear line between a foreign country and immigrants from that country. Anti-China sentiment will likely make life harder for these residents of America, and they could risk becoming collateral damage in a clash between China and the United States. In many states, Chinese people already feel the burn: Several state legislatures are enacting laws to ban Chinese from owning real properties. Texas state senators have proposed a bill that would forbid public universities from admitting Chinese students. These proposed laws strike the same chord as a TikTok ban: “We do not trust the Chinese and they will never be one of us.”
Leo Yu is a clinical professor of law at the Dedman School of Law, Southern Methodist University-Dallas. His research interests include civil rights, Asian American jurisprudence, and international legal education. His recent article From Criminalizing China to Criminalizing the Chinese has been selected to be published on the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.