How TikTok went from lip-sync videos to geopolitics

Analysis: The app has become the international poster child for a rivalry between China and the U.S. that is increasingly playing out through technology.
Image: TikTok
A man walks past a sign for TikTok at the International Artificial Products Expo in Hangzhou, China, on Oct. 18.CSN / via Reuters file
By Kevin Collier

TikTok, in many ways, ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The app, through no particular fault of its own, has become the international poster child for a rivalry between China and the U.S. that is increasingly playing out through technology. President Donald Trump has promised to ban the app, although he may allow its U.S. operations to be sold. Chinese media have fired back that such a sale would be a "smash and grab."

It's an unlikely situation for an app that until two years ago was a below-the-radar hit with young people. But its suddenly prominent international profile speaks to just how much the dynamics between the U.S. and China have changed in recent years — and how central technology is to their plans.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Trump began his presidency cozying up to China in hope of acquiring its help disarming North Korea, but that changed markedly in early 2020, as the countries signed a trade deal and the coronavirus pandemic picked up steam.

"For some of our problems with China, our response was delayed because of the trade negotiations," Glaser said.

"The president is now blaming China for everything that has transpired since then," she said. "And that has led to a real taking the gloves off on other issues where our concerns and our response have been muted."

A little more than two years ago, TikTok, Trump and China were on different terms. In March 2018, Trump's relationship with China was icy but diplomatic. His administration had battled China over trade policies, but he also offered congratulations to Chinese President Xi Jinping after term limits on him were eliminated, making him "president for life," in Trump's words.

TikTok was still going by its old name, Musical.ly, which it had been known as since it made its debut in Shanghai in August 2014. In November 2017, the Chinese tech company ByteDance bought the lip-sync-friendly app, which it later rebranded as TikTok.

By early 2018, the app had begun to emerge as the first major social network in years to offer serious competition to the U.S. tech giants and the first consumer tech company from China to capture significant attention among U.S. users. By late 2019, it had minted its own youthful stars and inspired a competing product from Facebook.

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The success came alongside growing U.S. scrutiny over the national security implications of China, which had steadily risen as a major threat among cybersecurity experts. While Russia had been the focus of most security concerns over its efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, China remained for many national security professionals a bigger threat — emphasized by hacking efforts that helped the country collect data on millions of Americans and a roster of alleged spies trying to steal U.S. trade secrets.

The concerns were directed primarily toward the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which is one of the leading providers of the technology for much-anticipated 5G wireless networks. In May 2019, Trump effectively banned the company from doing business in the U.S.

But concerns about TikTok were growing. By late 2019, TikTok was an internet sensation — and the subject of a national security review, although it wasn't alone. The gay dating app Grindr had faced similar questions about its Chinese ownership.

China's broader global ambitions had also become the subject of growing concern, particularly as it began to export its surveillance technology.

It wasn't until the middle of this year that TikTok would become the focal point of the rising tension over national security — boosted by a political backdrop in which Trump has sought to blame China for the coronavirus pandemic.

The public discussion of TikTok began to change in late June, shortly after TikTok users took credit for inflating the expectations for the crowd at a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. By early July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was publicly saying the U.S. was "looking at" banning TikTok. Trump said Friday that he had made the decision to ban the app, adding later that he could agree to a deal in which Microsoft bought all or some of the company.

The White House's complaints have largely centered on concerns that Chinese law grants the country access to data held there and that TikTok, like almost every other app, compiles data about its users. But TikTok has repeatedly insisted that it has never been asked to turn over user data, and cybersecurity experts say it doesn't collect significantly more information than other apps.

"Research has shown there's not much difference between what kind of data TikTok is collecting currently and other major social media companies," said Yaqui Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"What's concerning is not what's being done right now. It's the potential the Chinese government will collect user information in the future to blackmail U.S. citizens, for example," she said.

More than Americans' privacy is at stake. With the U.S. and China eyeing each other as the two main superpowers in what some security experts are beginning to call a new cold war, technology has emerged as a crucial way for each country to extend its power beyond its borders.

There's also the matter of which country's products get to dominate the international youth market. The U.S. has long dominated the space, with companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft owning their markets, and TikTok is a rare challenger to U.S. minds. While TikTok hasn't been shown to engage in large-scale censorship the way many other Chinese companies do, ByteDance does regularly obey Beijing's orders, such as by hiding evidence of China's concentration camps for Uighurs.

Although the White House's public comments have largely focused on the idea that TikTok presents a threat to U.S. users' privacy, TikTok has the potential to become a vessel for Beijing's leadership to shape regular people, said Klon Kitchen, the lead technologist for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"China is like every other nation in the history of the world in that it seeks to amass and to wield influence for its own ends," Kitchen said. "They have an alternative model of governance they are trying to export, and that model of governance is not only injurious to the U.S. and its interests, but we think it imperils human thriving and freedom."

Jason Abbruzzese contributed.