Donald Trump made it official on Thursday evening. He signed an executive order aimed at compelling ByteDance to divest TikTok, which will be subject to a US ban within weeks.
“Additional steps must be taken to deal with the national emergency with respect to the information and communications technology and services supply chain”, the order reads, sensationalizing the situation for maximum effect.
“The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in China continues to threaten national security, foreign policy, and [the] economy”, Trump goes on to declare.
Remember, we’re talking about a short video app. That’s not to suggest there aren’t legitimate national security concerns (there clearly are), but there’s something undeniably humorous about reading the language employed in the order and then juxtaposing it with the content you’d typically find on TikTok.
Trump continues, elaborating on what he characterizes as a grave threat:
At this time, action must be taken to address the threat posed by one mobile application in particular, TikTok. TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users… This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.
Those are some pretty serious allegations. Especially when you consider the company is now run by Disney’s former top streaming executive, who was installed in May.
Trump also says TikTok is being used to spread misinformation about COVID-19, a rather ironic accusation coming from a man who, on Wednesday, was accused by Facebook and Twitter of doing exactly the same thing. (Trump claims he was unfairly “censored”. At issue was a clip from an interview during which he suggested children cannot get sick from the coronavirus.)
“These risks are real”, Trump assures you, referencing the laundry list of grievances leveled against TikTok. He also cites India’s move to ban the app in justifying the decision. (There is, of course, more to the India-China spat than TikTok.)
In another order, released concurrently, Trump takes similar action against WeChat, which he claims is being used by Beijing to monitor Chinese nationals visiting the US, “thereby allowing the Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives”.
It sounds as though US residents will be forbidden from doing business with TikTok or ByteDance starting in 45 days. Transactions related to WeChat are prohibited after the same 45-day period. The White House calls for “aggressive action” against Tencent.
This isn’t exactly surprising. Mike Pompeo last week suggested WeChat could be targeted and on Wednesday, implored US companies to remove Chinese apps from their online stores. Microsoft is, of course, racing the clock to arrange a kind of shotgun marriage with TikTok.
Still, the language is abrasive and you can expect a sharply-worded rebuke from Beijing, which is already irritated at Washington’s decision to send a high-level delegation to Taiwan.
“Banning WeChat in the US could have far greater implications to cross-border business between Chinese and American companies, impacting everything from the manufacturing of medical face masks and Apple iPhones to the inking of contracts [between] lawyers and bankers”, Bloomberg writes, noting that “in China, it’s virtually impossible to function without WeChat”.
“While it’s important in Asia – where WeChat is widely used – there is minimal impact on the ground in the US I’d expect”, AxiCorp’s Stephen Innes said Friday. “Could this be more of a signal than anything else, especially front-running the China trade talks August 15?”, he wondered.
Sino-US tensions ratcheted materially higher last month with the forced closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston and an in-kind shuttering of the US mission in Chengdu. And that’s to say nothing of Pompeo’s abrasive speech in California and fraud charges against a handful of Chinese researchers.
On Thursday, Tang Juan, the scientist who briefly took refuge in China’s San Francisco consulate, was formally charged with visa fraud and lying about her connections to the PLA.
Read more: Spies Everywhere!