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TikTok withdraws from Hong Kong as Pompeo says U.S. may ban Chinese apps

The short-form video app is owned by the Beijing tech giant ByteDance and has been eager to show that people can trust it with their personal data.

The short-form Chinese-owned video app TikTok said Tuesday that it was withdrawing from Hong Kong, the latest tech company to review its involvement in the territory following a sweeping national security law passed by Beijing.

Earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was considering banning TikTok and other Chinese apps.

TikTok is owned by the Beijing tech giant ByteDance and has been eager to show lawmakers in the U.S. and elsewhere that people can trust it with their personal data.

"In light of recent events, we've decided to stop operations" in Hong Kong, TikTok spokesperson Cheryl Long said in an emailed statement.

TikTok has always been intended for the international market, with ByteDance offering a separate version of the platform, called Douyin, to users in mainland China.

The move follows announcements by some Western tech firms that they would review their activities in Hong Kong in the wake of the new national security law signed last week.

Though officials in Beijing and Hong Kong deny it, many in the U.S., Europe and Hong Kong itself see the legislation as a blow to the freedoms that the city was promised when the United Kingdom handed its colony back to China in 1997.

Image: The Beijing offices of Bytedance, which launched TikTok outside of China in 2017.
The Beijing offices of Bytedance, which launched TikTok outside of China in 2017.Thomas Suen / Reuters

On Monday, after pro-democracy activists reported that some of their books were no longer available in public libraries, Pompeo said in a statement that the move was "Orwellian" and condemned what he called China's continued "destruction of free Hong Kong."

Following the law's passage last week, Google, Twitter and Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, said they are putting a hold on sharing information with Hong Kong law enforcement.

Twitter cited "grave concerns" about the law's implications.

China sees the new law as necessary for stability in Hong Kong, and to stop the protests that have persisted for the past year, at times violently.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian was asked about TikTok's decision at a daily briefing later Tuesday.

"We hope that the parties concerned will view China's legitimate rights to safeguard its sovereignty and security in a fair, objective and rational manner," he said, asking them to "be cautious and prudent on Hong Kong-related issues, and do not selectively set up obstacles, nor politicize the issue."

Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, who is backed by Beijing, attempted to reassure those troubled by the recent developments in the city.

"Surely, this is not doom and gloom for Hong Kong," she told her weekly news conference Tuesday, according to Reuters. "I'm sure, with the passage of time ... confidence will grow in 'one country, two systems' and in Hong Kong's future."

TikTok has become one of the most popular apps in the world, a platform where people, mostly under 30, share wildly creative 15-second videos set to music.

But lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe have raised concerns that the app might be sending people's data back to China, whose government is classified as an authoritarian regime by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research group that tracks the issue.

There have also been concerns that TikTok is censoring content that might be critical of China's well-documented human rights abuses, using the social media platform as an outlet to shape Beijing's image in the eyes of young people around the world.

TikTok has vehemently and repeatedly denied this, saying it is not influenced by China or any foreign government, and that it has not shared data nor has it been asked to do so.

Its attempts to persuade the world of its trustworthiness can be seen in its hiring of former Disney executive, Kevin Mayer, to be its CEO earlier this year.

These security concerns have placed TikTok in the crosshairs of the Trump administration, which has been coming down hard on Chinese tech companies.

When asked about TikTok in the U.S. on Monday, Pompeo told Fox News that "we are taking this very seriously. We are certainly looking at it."

Asked if Americans should continue to download TikTok, he said, "Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party."

Following Pompeo's interview, a TikTok spokesperson denied the company was influenced by China.

"TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product and public policy here in the U.S," it said in a statement. "We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users."

Last month, teenage TikTok users claimed credit for registering thousands of ticket requests for Trump's rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a prank — only to fail to show up, leaving many seats empty.

The U.S. is not alone. India, which has recently clashed with China over a territorial dispute, banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps citing similar fears.

Pompeo suggested that TikTok might be treated with the same hard-line approach that the White House has taken with two Chinese telecom companies, Huawei and ZTE.

"We have worked on this very issue for a long time," he told Fox News, naming both firms as examples in which the U.S. has cracked down.

The U.S. maintains that Huawei equipment could be used for espionage by Beijing, and that user data could be compromised. Huawei has repeatedly denied those allegations.

Reuters contributed to this report.