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The depressing truth about TikTok’s impending ban

The depressing truth about TikTok’s impending ban

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Allow me to indulge in a little reflection this week. Last week, the divest-or-ban TikTok bill was passed in Congress and signed into law. Four years ago, when I was just starting to report on the world of Chinese technologies, one of my first stories was about very similar news: President Donald Trump announcing he’d ban TikTok. 

That 2020 executive order came to nothing in the end—it was blocked in the courts, put aside after the presidency changed hands, and eventually withdrawn by the Biden administration. Yet the idea—that the US government should ban TikTok in some way—never went away. It would repeatedly be suggested in different forms and shapes. And eventually, on April 24, 2024, things came full circle.

A lot has changed in the four years between these two news cycles. Back then, TikTok was a rising sensation that many people didn’t understand; now, it’s one of the biggest social media platforms, the originator of a generation-defining content medium, and a music-industry juggernaut. 

What has also changed is my outlook on the issue. For a long time, I thought TikTok would find a way out of the political tensions, but I’m increasingly pessimistic about its future. And I have even less hope for other Chinese tech companies trying to go global. If the TikTok saga tells us anything, it’s that their Chinese roots will be scrutinized forever, no matter what they do.

I don’t believe TikTok has become a larger security threat now than it was in 2020. There have always been issues with the app, like potential operational influence by the Chinese government, the black-box algorithms that produce unpredictable results, and the fact that parent company ByteDance never managed to separate the US side and the China side cleanly, despite efforts (one called Project Texas) to store and process American data locally. 

But none of those problems got worse over the last four years. And interestingly, while discussions in 2020 still revolved around potential remedies like setting up data centers in the US to store American data or having an organization like Oracle audit operations, those kinds of fixes are not in the law passed this year. As long as it still has Chinese owners, the app is not permissible in the US. The only thing it can do to survive here is transfer ownership to a US entity. 

That’s the cold, hard truth not only for TikTok but for other Chinese companies too. In today’s political climate, any association with China and the Chinese government is seen as unacceptable. It’s a far cry from the 2010s, when Chinese companies could dream about developing a killer app and finding audiences and investors around the globe—something many did pull off. 

There’s something I wrote four years ago that still rings true today: TikTok is the bellwether for Chinese companies trying to go global. 

The majority of Chinese tech giants, like Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu, operate primarily within China’s borders. TikTok was the first to gain mass popularity in lots of other countries across the world and become part of daily life for people outside China. To many Chinese startups, it showed that the hard work of trying to learn about foreign countries and users can eventually pay off, and it’s worth the time and investment to try.

On the other hand, if even TikTok can’t get itself out of trouble, with all the resources that ByteDance has, is there any hope for the smaller players?

When TikTok found itself in trouble, the initial reaction of these other Chinese companies was to conceal their roots, hoping they could avoid attention. During my reporting, I’ve encountered multiple companies that fret about being described as Chinese. “We are headquartered in Boston,” one would say, while everyone in China openly talked about its product as the overseas version of a Chinese app.

But with all the political back-and-forth about TikTok, I think these companies are also realizing that concealing their Chinese associations doesn’t work—and it may make them look even worse if it leaves users and regulators feeling deceived.

With the new divest-or-ban bill, I think these companies are getting a clear signal that it’s not the technical details that matter—only their national origin. The same worry is spreading to many other industries, as I wrote in this newsletter last week. Even in the climate and renewable power industries, the presence of Chinese companies is becoming increasingly politicized. They, too, are finding themselves scrutinized more for their Chinese roots than for the actual products they offer.

Obviously, none of this is good news to me. When they feel unwelcome in the US market, Chinese companies don’t feel the need to talk to international media anymore. Without these vital conversations, it’s even harder for people in other countries to figure out what’s going on with tech in China.

Instead of banning TikTok because it’s Chinese, maybe we should go back to focus on what TikTok did wrong: why certain sensitive political topics seem deprioritized on the platform; why Project Texas has stalled; how to make the algorithmic workings of the platform more transparent. These issues, instead of whether TikTok is still controlled by China, are the things that actually matter. It’s a harder path to take than just banning the app entirely, but I think it’s the right one.

Do you believe the TikTok ban will go through? Let me know your thoughts at zeyi@technologyreview.com.


Now read the rest of China Report

Catch up with China

1. Facing the possibility of a total ban on TikTok, influencers and creators are making contingency plans. (Wired $)

2. TSMC has brought hundreds of Taiwanese employees to Arizona to build its new chip factory. But the company is struggling to bridge cultural and professional differences between American and Taiwanese workers. (Rest of World)

3. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, met with Chinese president Xi Jinping during a visit to China this week. (New York Times $)

  • Here’s the best way to describe these recent US-China diplomatic meetings: “The US and China talk past each other on most issues, but at least they’re still talking.” (Associated Press)

4. Half of Russian companies’ payments to China are made through middlemen in Hong Kong, Central Asia, or the Middle East to evade sanctions. (Reuters $)

5. A massive auto show is taking place in Beijing this week, with domestic electric vehicles unsurprisingly taking center stage. (Associated Press)

  • Meanwhile, Elon Musk squeezed in a quick trip to China and met with his “old friend” the Chinese premier Li Qiang, who was believed to have facilitated establishing the Gigafactory in Shanghai. (BBC)
  • Tesla may finally get a license to deploy its autopilot system, which it calls Full Self Driving, in China after agreeing to collaborate with Baidu. (Reuters $)

6. Beijing has hosted two rival Palestinian political groups, Hamas and Fatah, to talk about potential reconciliation. (Al Jazeera)

Lost in translation

The Chinese dubbing community is grappling with the impacts of new audio-generating AI tools. According to the Chinese publication ACGx, for a new audio drama, a music company licensed the voice of the famous dubbing actor Zhao Qianjing and used AI to transform it into multiple characters and voice the entire script. 

But online, this wasn’t really celebrated as an advancement for the industry. Beyond criticizing the quality of the audio drama (saying it still doesn’t sound like real humans), dubbers are worried about the replacement of human actors and increasingly limited opportunities for newcomers. Other than this new audio drama, there have been several examples in China where AI audio generation has been used to replace human dubbers in documentaries and games. E-book platforms have also allowed users to choose different audio-generated voices to read out the text. 

One more thing

While in Beijing, Antony Blinken visited a record store and bought two vinyl records—one by Taylor Swift and another by the Chinese rock star Dou Wei. Many Chinese (and American!) people learned for the first time that Blinken had previously been in a rock band.

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