TikTok: between China and the United States, the big game of liar poker

TikTok between China and the United States the big game

“TikTok can’t be believed. TikTok is a spy in the pocket of Americans.” It is enough to listen to a few minutes of the hearing by the American Congress of the CEO of TikTok to see it: the favorite app of teenagers has become public enemy n°1. Westerners fear two things about it: its impact on its (very) young users and the potential links with China of this app which collects a lot of data and now influences the global conversation. The restrictive measures against him are linked at breakneck speed. The Canadians, the British and the Europeans prohibited it for “sensitive” personnel (government, administration, etc.). And in the United States, bills aim to give the President the power to ban the application to the entire population.

In the TikTok affair, a formidable game of liar poker is being played out. Chinese ministers, like Mao Ning, make fun of Americans and try to portray them as paranoid people with little respect for freedom of expression. A shame when you know that China censors almost all American platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). TikTok, for its part, is rowing to distinguish itself from Beijing. The company argues that its parent company, ByteDance Ltd, is registered in the Cayman Islands and is almost 60% owned by international investors. “Our CEO is based in Singapore, as is our global product manager. Our chief operating officer and chief legal officer are in the US, and our global security director is in Ireland,” a TikTok spokesperson said. from L’Express.

The Cayman Islands and the Chinese Communist Party

The situation, however, is not as clear cut as TikTok suggests. The registration of ByteDance in the Cayman Islands, “an area precisely known to allow the assembly of opaque companies” is also not trivial, underlines Senator Claude Malhuret, rapporteur for the commission of inquiry on TikTok in France. ByteDance was indeed created by two Chinese, Zhang Yiming and Liang Rubo. It is in this country that it has developed and that a good part of its employees are located. “It has had a ‘branch’ of the Chinese Communist Party since 2014, and a ‘committee’ of the Party within it since 2017, underlines Charles Thibout, associate researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations. These partisan metastases have a very specific role: to apply the resolutions of the Party, to enforce the official ideology and discipline within the company.

As the Chinese government itself has recalled, it has the power to oppose a sale of TikTok to a foreign group. Even if this is gradually changing, it is in China, finally, that a large part of the data collected by TikTok has until now been routed. Data that ByteDance has, at least once, failed to protect properly: the company has admitted that group employees in China have exceeded its rules and improperly accessed the personal data of American journalists who were investigating … on it.

These murky links rightly worry Westerners. Because Beijing exercises formidable control over the private sector in China. “On a legal level, Chinese companies have a duty to cooperate with the public authorities, in particular the intelligence services”, explains Charles Thibout. And they are often called upon to carry the “good word” of the party. Douyin, the version of TikTok offered by ByteDance in China, does not highlight publications criticizing the government, nor those questioning the fate of the Uyghurs.

The Chinese tech heavyweights that thought they were powerful enough to impose their rules came crashing down on the Party wall. In 2021, Didi, the “Chinese Uber”, led a fundraiser in the United States to the disapproval of Beijing. A few weeks later, a vast administrative investigation was triggered and the group ended up being fined 4% of its turnover in 2022. As for the fate of Jack Ma, it obviously serves as a warning in China: the successful ex-boss of Alibaba was unceremoniously removed from power after criticizing the Party.

The hypocrisy of Americans on TikTok

China is not alone in showing bad faith in the TikTok affair, however. The Americans denounce the addictive, stupid and unsuitable side of the app for its very young users, while their Facebook, Snap, Twitter and co. pose similar problems. As in China, “the law requires American companies to share the information they collect if the information asks them to do so”, points out Pierre Harand, CEO of the consulting firm specializing in data Fifty-five.

Behind TikTok, a much larger battle is actually being played out between Beijing and Washington. China has invested a lot and made progress in areas that will shape the economy of tomorrow (AI, 5G, electric battery, etc.). And this seriously worries the United States, which is attacking the Chinese technology sector more and more aggressively. In 2019, they clipped the wings of Huawei, which was asserting itself as a global giant in the mobile and especially the telecoms of tomorrow, by denouncing the risks of taking on a Chinese player to build sensitive infrastructure such as Internet networks. Huawei is now banned in the US and while Europeans haven’t officially banned it, they’ve quietly but surely distanced themselves ever since. The Americans also increased their pressure on China at the end of the year by drastically restricting its access to the most sophisticated semiconductors.

That a TikTok best known for its wacky videos finds itself in turn in the American viewfinder may surprise. It is actually an unstoppable logic. Young people don’t just use the app to watch dance clips. As our survey shows, it is there that they look for information, that tomorrow’s trends emerge, that controversies are born and die. By observing the trajectory of TikTok, it is likely that it will democratize among other age groups, like Facebook before it. Beyond the economic threat it poses to several American champions (Google, Facebook, etc.), TikTok could become one of the main gateways to the Internet and strongly influence what people do and see there. An economic and political weapon not to be underestimated.

On this minefield, Europe is advancing cautiously. His ties are obviously close with the United States, but his interests and relations with China are not necessarily symmetrical to those of Uncle Sam. Prohibiting an application to an entire population as the Americans envisage is “a measure unprecedented in a democratic country”, warns Francesca Musiani, researcher at the CNRS and deputy director of the Internet and Society Center. Especially since no evidence of interference from Beijing with the application has been provided.

The TikTok algorithm

On the Old Continent, we therefore stick for the time being to banning TikTok on the professional phones of sensitive personnel, an easily justifiable measure since an entertaining app is never essential and increases exposure to cyber-maliciousness. On March 24, France also passed the pill of banning TikTok on the phones of civil servants in a more general suppression of “recreational applications” including Netflix.

TikTok, for its part, is putting on the table major security measures to reassure the United States and the European Union, in particular the fact, in the future, of storing only their citizens’ data on their soil. What the Gafams do not do. Not sure that’s enough to reassure. Because the operation of TikTok remains secret. And even if the app were to open its hood tomorrow, “it would be very hard to spot the changes to the algorithms and their impact on what users see”, explains Gérôme Billois, associate specialist in cybersecurity at Wavestone. If there is no perfect protection, a “leap of faith” is needed. Do we trust TikTok?