Why a Tik Tok Ban is Dangerous for US-China Relations
In July 2020, President Donald Trump proposed to ban the immensely popular video-sharing app Tik Tok before the ban was blocked by a federal judge . This measure originated over concerns that Tik Tok’s parent company ByteDance was storing consumer information like names, faces, online usage habits, and even IP addresses of homes and workplaces. Laws in China stipulate that Chinese companies are required to turn over consumer data to the state when asked. The security risk of this led to the possibility of a ban on Tik Tok being explored by the Biden Administration, which has already banned the use of Tik Tok on government devices. Lawmakers in Montana have banned Tik Tok by preventing the app from operating in the state and removing it from the app store for residents. The Biden Administration wants to ban the app nationwide, force a sale of the platform to an American company, or move data storage to the US. While a ban may be viable to prevent national security risks, it has unclear legal implications and risks straining the United States’ relationship with China even more.
The security risk the United States argues that Tik Tok poses is indicative of the tensions in relations between the United States and China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims that China poses “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order” . The belief that China is positioned to challenge America’s hegemony in international institutions is reflected in US policies that seek to limit relations such as restrictions on semiconductor imports and investments from American firms in Chinese enterprises. As China has established itself as a focal point on the world stage, the United States perceives this as China challenging its control of international institutions. The Trump Administration responded to this pressure by distancing themselves from China in areas that the US previously dominated. The US created aggressive tariffs to protect American industry from Chinese competition, and authorized agencies to restrict China through rulemaking . Protectionist trade policies like stepping back from the World Trade Organization by refusing to support new judicial nominations and effectively stagnating the organization have been present under both Trump and Biden. Banning Tik Tok closes down yet another avenue of commerce between the United States and China, effectively extending the previous commerce bans to media for the first time.
When the US and China vie for power, they must recognize that their collaboration as global powers is vital to ameliorating issues like climate change and human rights abuses. This is obscured by confrontation which is explained as national security protection . The US justifies most confrontational policies as having a self-defense purpose, which is also true of the Tik Tok ban. Blinken also said that they “don’t seek to block China in their role as a major world power,” instead wanting to focus on maintaining American influence in global institutions, even though Washington publicly recognizes that they need to collaborate with Beijing because of their multiplicity of interactions. A Tik Tok ban is dangerous to relations since China’s Ministry of Commerce has said that they would “resolutely oppose” a ban on Tik Tok, citing the damaging effects it would have on Chinese and global investors alike . Though they did not indicate what they would do, they said that they would make a decision in accordance with the law which would damage Chinese faith in US investors. This shows that the ban has the opportunity to destabilize already rocky relations. As two main global superpowers, the relationship between the US and China is central to the global economy.
While many lawmakers have consistently voiced their concerns over the security issues on the app, proposed solutions such as a ban have not been popular among the public. The ban has been criticized as an overreach by the Biden Administration, as it would be seen as suppressing Americans’ ability to express themselves on the most downloaded app today. The Tik Tok ban has also been criticized as an easy way to act tough on China and hawkish on foreign policy for both Democrats and Republicans to appeal to voters that have become increasingly fearful of China’s stance as a global power . Last January, the House easily passed a resolution to create a select committee on China, as the economic and political measures taken against China on the basis of national security have provided the same opportunity for hawkishness . However, these feelings may not be shared by the general public. While a Pew Study showed that 50% of people support the ban, 22% oppose it and a larger percentage (28%) are unsure . Support for the ban leans towards Republicans, but Democrats support it as well. Although the public supports the ban, this is symptomatic of US feelings of fear towards China, and would actually increase tensions as opposed to de-escalation.
In addition to having possibly detrimental consequences for the global community, a Tik Tok ban has shaky constitutional grounding. Many argue that the United States government would be restricting the First Amendment rights of Americans who use the platform to communicate ideas and opinions . In 2020, one northern California court delivered a relevant ruling when it claimed that Trump’s efforts to ban WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, were unconstitutional because it prevented Americans from exercising their right to free speech on the platform . To justify a complete ban, the Biden Administration would have to prove the security issue to be important enough to navigate around the free speech issue. Forcing a sale would get around the free speech issue, but would be similarly tricky legally, as Trump was already blocked from forcing a sale of Tik Tok to an American company. However, this was mostly on the basis that the administrative process surrounding the sale was insufficient . While a forced sale may be more viable than a total ban, even though executive power exists to do so, it may be too complex to facilitate in reality. Resorting to a complete ban would reflect Congress’ inability to directly regulate technology companies in light of privacy concerns, previously resorting to full bans instead, and a forced sale may not be viable.
Besides the legal ambiguity surrounding it, the United States should avoid a Tik Tok ban because of the rhetoric of censorship that surrounds the idea. China notably uses censorship domestically to suppress political opinion and seek to make the CCP regime as powerful as possible with little opposition from the public. The lack of civil liberties for Chinese citizens is a fixture that has defined perceptions of China, and led to the idea of China as overly oppressive. Since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, civil society has become even more restricted in China, and media bans are central to this. In the 2010 white paper, or public statement, China asserted the freedoms afforded by the advent of the internet are still subject to domestic laws and security considerations, which has consistently meant censorship to Chinese citizens . This censorship is not too far from a prospective US ban on Tik Tok, drawing parallels to the repression of media that occurs in China. The United States messaging as an open and free democratic nation is questioned by the nature of this ban, and weakens their position in the face of Chinese repression . The United States loses its argument as a freer state by banning Tik Tok. Additionally, banning Tik Tok closes down yet another avenue of commerce between the United States and China, effectively extending the previous commerce bans to media for the first time.
The relationship between the United States and China is central to the global environment because of the power of both states and their increasing interconnectedness as both nations grow economically. However, the United States feels threatened by China within international institutions, as China seeks to increase its global power. The resulting protections of the US from relations with China can be extended recently in the face of the proposed ban on Tik Tok. This ban will aggravate tensions, and puts the United States on a shaky legal level that is reminiscent of China’s own censorship. The security risk of Americans’ data being controlled by the Chinese state is a viable concern. However, a total Tik Tok ban is dangerous to crucial China-US relations, is legally ambiguous surrounding the right to free speech, and is rhetorically problematic because of the implication of censorship by the US. A more promising solution is a forced sale, but the administrative and legal obstacles may also prevent success in this area. The lack of a clear solution leaves the US with a question of whether to violate constitutional rights, stress a vulnerable relationship, or appear to share authoritarian censorship policies.
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