The TikTok logo with a ban circle around it
Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum
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Here’s what the potential American TikTok ban says about the U.S.-China relationship

According to a The New York Times article about the Chinese internet, President Xi Jinping’s Chinese government built the ‘Great Firewall,’ blocking Chinese internet users from American-owned apps like Instagram and Facebook and search engines like Google and Yahoo. 

Meanwhile, in the United States, President Donald Trump planned to ban Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat, from American app stores on September 27, 2020. But before the ban could take place, “a judge in Washington D.C. temporarily blocked the ban from taking effect.” 

According to a news story by Al Jazeera, “WeChat has more than 1.2 million active users” with only “two per cent from the United States and “[the] biggest impact [of this ban] could be on companies like Walmart, Starbucks, Nike, and Amazon. [Because they] all use WeChat’s e-commerce platform in China to conduct business.” This is just one of the ramifications that the ban could have on the U.S.-China relationship. 

As previously reported in other news outlets, these Chinese apps do harvest information from its users. However, I wonder if the ban will intensify the bifurcation of the internet. And I also wonder, what negative consequences this will have on the state of the internet in America? 

Li Yuan from Independent reports that “[according to] [U.S.] chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC),” when these apps are banned in American markets, “the internet is [unlikely] to remain open and […] Chinese and Western markets [will] each become more insular”. Also, according to Nicolas Thompson, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine, if the U.S. bans these apps then they will, “[cut] off one of the main mechanisms  we have to tell [Chinese citizens] about democracy and [about life] in the rest of the world.” 

As a result, the ban could accelerate the weakening of Chinese-U.S. relations and this could further congest the free-flow of information from the U.S. to China and vice-versa. 

What the dispute over TikTok and WeChat proves is that the internet is a global platform on which the whole world can connect freely. 

For example, according to Xiao Qiang’s, ‘The Rise of China as a Digital Totalitarian State’, “[China’s] first cybersecurity law […] requires [Chinese] Internet companies to allow […] surveillance of their networks, submit to mandated security reviews of their equipment and provide data to government investigators when requested […]”.It is therefore clear that China’s internet is already insulated from the world. 

I think that the U.S. ban of these apps is a political move that worsens an already trite U.S.-China relationship. 

Recently, Trump’s government, “blacklisted China’s largest tech company, Huawei, and [canceled] the Visas of thousands of Chinese grad students and researchers in the United States.”

Again, I think that the protection of U.S. intelligence is important, but to what extent does this trap both Americans and Chinese into their narrow, government-approved, perceptions of the world? 

To conclude, I don’t have an opinion about whether the TikTok and WeChat ban is necessary to protect American security. And I speak as an observer—not an expert—when I say that Trump’s demonization of China is not the best way to assert one’s hegemonic dominance on the world stage. 

Instead, this potential ban weakens American influence on the internet. If the White House goes through with the ban, there are important questions to ask ourselves: 

Will the White House’s decision to ban TikTok insulate Americans from the world? And what are the negative consequences of this potential insulation?