As competition between the US and China escalates, the security issue of WeChat and TikTok may be a source of friction in the countries’ relationship.
In early August, President Trump signed executive orders aimed at ending the use of two Chinese-owned mobile applications, WeChat and TikTok, in the United States. Starting on September 20, the orders direct US companies to neither provide updates nor allow downloads of these apps. According to the Commerce Department, WeChat and TikTok are national security threats as they are “active participant[s] in China’s civil-military fusion and [are] subject to mandatory cooperation with the intelligence services of the CCP.” This means that the apps’ users could have their data, such as location tracking and search histories, shared with the Chinese intelligence services. There are worries that such data collected by TikTok could then be employed to blackmail users or promote disinformation campaigns. However, there is little evidence this has occurred.
A national online poll of 1988 registered voters, ages 18 to over 65, conducted by Morning Consult from September 18-20 sheds some light on how Americans see these bans. A plurality of respondents (41%) expressed some level of support for them, with a significant portion (31%) either lacking awareness of them or declining to express an opinion. Perhaps in a telling sign of TikTok’s younger user base, the respondents of Generation Z (1997-2012) expressed the strongest opposition of all generations surveyed. Half (51%) oppose the bans, with 38 percent of this amount being strongly opposed to them. On the whole, around nine in ten (93%) of those polled responded that they had no plans to download WeChat before the scheduled ban on September 20, while eight in ten (80%) had no such plans to download TikTok.
More than half of those polled (58%) noted that President Trump’s decision to bar downloads of WeChat and TikTok had not changed their vote in next month’s presidential election. Moreover, a plurality of respondents (39%) see them as having no effect on how they view the Trump administration.
Neither of the bans took effect on schedule. A federal judge in California blocked the order against WeChat over free speech concerns while a judge in Washington, DC did the same for TikTok but on the basis that its ban is not justified under national security laws.
There may be more good news on the horizon for TikTok as President Trump gave consent to a deal last month that could salvage the company’s US operations. The deal calls for the creation of TikTok Global, a new US-based venture that would see the American software company, Oracle, along with Walmart owning a combined 20 percent stake in it. Under this arrangement, Oracle would be in charge of hosting American users’ data and protecting TikTok’s computer systems, hopefully assuaging the administration’s concerns over the Chinese government’s access to Americans’ data. Before this deal can be finalized, it must be approved by the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a panel charged with reviewing US business transactions with foreign involvement.
Despite considerable talk in business and government circles, the bans on WeChat and TikTok do not seem to register much on most Americans’ radar. However, as the competition between the US and China escalates, this issue may return as yet another source of friction in the countries’ relationship.