TikTok CEO Shou Chew spent his Thursday being interrogated by US lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
I’m not sure we learned much from the spectacle, other than that Americans have a very difficult time pronouncing Chinese names properly, even when they’ve presumably rehearsed.
Various media reports have indicated the Biden administration intends to compel parent ByteDance to sell its stake in the wildly popular app, which might otherwise be banned in the US. This is one of the only matters of national concern around which there’s something loosely akin to bipartisan agreement.
I frankly don’t understand why we’re still having the discussion. This debate has taken up almost four years of America’s time, and probably several millennia if you add up the hours the nation’s youth have spent on TikTok’s platform.
It’s impossible to say for sure whether TikTok poses a serious national security threat, but it’s eminently possible that it poses some kind of security threat, and it’s absolutely the case that the country would be better off without it. The last thing America’s teenagers and young adults need is another excuse to waste time. And from what I gather, TikTok is a black hole in that regard. (So are Twitter and Instagram and all the rest, and I don’t like them either.)
The argument — advanced by at least a couple of otherwise intelligent people this week — that US lawmakers should refrain from being overzealous when it comes to TikTok for fear of alienating young voters seems dubious to me. If the nation’s young adults are so wedded to their social media apps that banning just one on national security grounds has the potential to impact an election, then the country’s social media addiction is itself a national security threat.
I can’t bring myself to dedicate much coverage to this (and I hope you’ll thank me for that), but I’d be remiss not to briefly highlight it given the extent to which it’s part and parcel of the geopolitical tensions between the US and China.
Chew conceded Thursday that he couldn’t guarantee ByteDance employees don’t have access to TikTok’s data, which is really all that matters. He said he hasn’t “seen evidence” of that, but it’s hard to know what that means. At least as it relates to national security, the entire hearing was exemplified by one exchange with Ohio Republican Bob Latta.
“Do any ByteDance employees in China, including engineers, have access to US user data?” Latta asked Chew, who tried to obfuscate. “Congressman, I would appreciate… this is a complex topic,” Chew ventured.
I’m sure it is. A “complex topic,” I mean. But, as Latta emphasized, his wasn’t an especially “complex” question. “Yes or no?” he pressed.
Chew again tried to dodge. He referenced “Project Texas,” a plan under which ByteDance would retain ownership, but TikTok’s US data would be stored on domestic servers run by Oracle.
Ultimately, Chew wasn’t willing to definitively rule out the possibility that someone in China, right now, is parsing TikTok’s data on an estimated 150 million Americans.
To be clear: This is a problem because China is, at best, a strategic adversary of the US in 2023. At worst, it’s a prospective enemy combatant in a future armed conflict. That’s highly unfortunate. All of us wish it wasn’t the case. But it is the case, and when considered with the fact that China is an authoritarian government which operates a sprawling domestic police state, concerns are justified.
Whether the risk is “real” is another matter, and I’ll be the first to admit that this may all be overblown — absurd, even. It’s entirely possible this is just a modern day Red Scare. If that’s the case, it’s a shame, and if I have to apologize for participating in it at some point, I will.
But in the here and now, what does America lose from banning one social media app? Nothing. Your teenager might argue with me, and I’d listen patiently, but I wouldn’t be swayed. Your twentysomething might argue with me, and at the risk of upsetting you, I’d tell her to grow up. Your thirtysomething might argue with me, and I’d give him a loan so he can move out of your basement.
In his prepared remarks, Chew on Thursday said, “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country.”
Meanwhile, China doesn’t want ByteDance to divest. Beijing “firmly opposes” the sale of the app, Xi Jinping’s foreign ministry said, just hours before Chew spoke to Congress.
If the Biden administration forces a sale, it’d “seriously undermine confidence” and discourage “various countries” from investing in the US, “including China,” a spokeswoman went on. Without irony, I’m sure.