TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared at a hearing before U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce March 23 to respond to questions from U.S. lawmakers. During the session, which lasted for more than six hours and recalled a dinner party with Hannibal Lecter, members of Congress bombarded Shou with questions, many of which lacked common sense and were deliberately provocative. Of course, members of Congress asked the questions only for the sake of appearance. The U.S. has a reason for chasing down TikTok, and in this commentator’s view, that purpose is twofold: First, to appropriate TikTok’s assets, as in the question, for example, “Does TikTok access the home WiFi network?” and second, to use TikTok as a target to shift attention from the United States’ own conflicts. Understanding these two objectives is crucial, as they are also the keys to solving TikTok’s current dilemma.
Secret No. 1: Appropriation of High-Quality Assets?
This is a rehash of the plot of “The American Trap,” meant to achieve certain goals, Americans will often politicize simple issues, portraying their opponents as Satan and casting themselves in the role of God. As a result, God often profits at Satan’s expense, such as with the American takeover of Alstom, when the U.S. charged and arrested CEO Frédéric Pierucci, detaining him for four years, forcing him into agreeing to sell the company. The outcome was that General Electric hit the jackpot with its acquisition of Alstom, and that the same thing is occurring with TikTok should come as a surprise to no one.
The boom in popularity of short videos is readily apparent; it is a format with two advantages over longer-form videos. First, short videos make use of people’s fragmented time. Modern people’s leisure time is mostly fragmented, so the short-video boom is in line with the work-rest rhythm of contemporary life. Second, human beings like short feedback loops. Of course, this is a character weakness, but it is also a basic law of human nature. Therefore, the success of the short-form video is not based on any conscious effort but on the inexorable laws of modern social development. Without TikTok, other apps would step forward to fill the gap in the market, and TikTok has been successful because it was the first to grasp this rule. With the explosion in TikTok’s user base, Silicon Valley tech companies, led by Meta, are naturally feeling threatened.
For all their efforts, as long as Silicon Valley tech companies are able to win on a level playing field, they will avoid taking the tired old mandatory takeover route. Where this process is concerned, all they need to do is portray TikTok as Satan and cast themselves in the role of God, and they will be able to dismantle the international work of an entire company without so much as breaking a sweat and step once more into a position of global dominance.
In fact, TikTok has taken action in various respects, such as moving its headquarters to Singapore, but these cooperative practices have not been viewed objectively by American lawmakers. This is because, in essence, public opinion in the U.S. is all about reopening the Satanic mills and portraying fair-play market competition as Satan, thus laying the groundwork for snatching everything away from them.
Secret No. 2: Bipartisan Games in Congress?
Many people are unaware that the American Data Privacy and Protection Act actually exists only in draft form and has not been ruled on by Congress. The draft was introduced in June 2022, but is still undergoing legislative review.
There is a major difference of opinion on the legislation, to wit: Should there be any intervention when it comes to harmful content? The American people do not trust the U.S. government, and they fear that it will implement controls in the name of protecting information security, as when it was revealed that Donald Trump used Cambridge Analytica to predict public opinion and win the election. On the other hand, unregulated information can create additional problems, common to all American social media, such as inciting juvenile delinquency and spreading misinformation. Politicians may wax evangelical about God, Satan, angels and demons, but few things are black or white. For the average American, it is much more about choice.
This TikTok incident may be bipartisan congressional game playing on just this type of issue.
TikTok’s current achievements are the result of its employees’ hard work, and even if there were to be a transfer of controlling rights, a labor union such as Huawei’s should handle it, and as a matter of course, it should include all the employees who have worked so hard to develop the company. American companies cannot steal the fruits of TikTok’s labor. This would be unfair not just to all its employees but to its users all around the world.
TikTok can also take advantage of the polarized nature of American politics while standing firmly against it, and leave the choice to Americans themselves. There is no right or wrong here. There are only choices.
The author is the co-director of and a researcher at Zhejiang University International Business School’s Research Centre for Digital Economics and Financial Innovation and a member of the Expert Committee for Information and Communication Economy (ECICE) of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.