The ire of President Donald Trump at the app, which has become the target of his counter-offensive against Beijing’s expansionism, shows that the global network is not resistant to the turbulence of geopolitics.
TikTok, an application for teens who share addictive videos of mini skits and musical improvisations in playback, did not, a priori, aspire to spark a new global digital cold war. This is the case, however, since President Donald Trump, stung by China’s first, spectacular entry into the private preserve of the web giants (more than 2 billion people around the world have downloaded TikTok), has decided to make this success story the new target of his counter-offensive against Beijing’s expansionism and maintain American digital supremacy.
Citing the risk that the Chinese communist regime would collect the personal data of the 50 million daily TikTok users in the United States, Trump had announced on Friday, July 31, his intention to ban it outright. Three days later, he had a change of heart, demanding that Microsoft or another national giant buy out, by Sept. 25, American activities from ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok with $11 billion of annual revenue, 80% of it from advertising.
After the telecoms giant Huawei — itself suspected of espionage — the Chinese app, a hit with 15-25-year-olds, including those in France, is becoming the rallying cry of a president fighting for his reelection. Beyond the political and economic implications, Trump’s new anger toward the Chinese marks a turning point, accentuating the worldwide fragmentation of the internet. Designed as a borderless system of exchange, the global network is not resistant to the turbulence of geopolitics.
Betrayal of Economic Liberalism
China was the first to set the wrong example. It has never authorized Western internet giants to operate in its territory, preferring to develop Chinese clones of Google, Facebook or Amazon to better control its citizens’ data and impede all critical points of view. In China, TikTok operates under the name Douyin and does not intermingle its Chinese enthusiasts with their American or European counterparts. By targeting TikTok, Donald Trump lines this great, digital Chinese wall with an American iron curtain. The whole point of an eventual sale to Microsoft is to separate American and Chinese activities, even though there are doubts on the technical feasibility of sealing off the two systems in order to protect data.
True to his blending of styles between political action and business dealing, the American president is going so far as to demand a payment from the Chinese to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for the price of the transaction. By intervening personally in business affairs, he is acting against the economic liberalism that he is supposed to embody and feeds the Chinese accusations of racketeering.
However, his exposure of the risks of espionage and personal data collection for the benefit of the Chinese regime is not rooted in fantasy. Chinese law obliges internet operators not only to respond to any request for intelligence, but also to keep secret its endeavors. If the necessity to obstruct efforts at intrusion of authoritarian regimes in the West is a given, Trump’s impulses only dangerously accelerate the breakdown of the interdependence that has prevailed up to now between the two superpowers and assured their peaceful coexistence.