Social media and foreign relations

Professor Wesoky explains how TikTok and WeChat may affect future foreign policy

Popular video creating and sharing app TikTok as well as multi-purpose media app WeChat have made global headlines in the past few weeks due to recent discoveries that installing the app may make private data stored on that device accessible to parent companies ByteDance and Tencent, respectively, and by proxy to the Chinese government due to laws previously in place.

President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok if ByteDance will not either sell the American portion of the app to an American company by September 15. Sharon Wesoky, Professor of Political Science and China scholar, elaborated on the potential impacts it could have to American and Chinese consumers.

“TikTok is the first major tech company from China to really succeed in the U.S.,” Wesoky said. “So there are questions of whether the U.S. is just freaking out because there’s a real competitor from China now.”

While emphasizing it may be the biggest app, Wesoky said that TikTok was not the only social media app to come out of China in recent years.

“It’s very important to note that the Trump executive order also is seeking to ban WeChat, which is not as important to most American users, but is incredibly important to the Chinese,” Wesoky said. “Probably anybody in China with a mobile phone uses WeChat because it’s literally Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, news, Venmo, Messenger, and more in one app. It’s how I keep in touch with all my friends and contacts in China.”

While the loss of WeChat concerns China scholars like Wesoky, many see TikTok as a greater loss due to the fact that it is much more widely-used than WeChat. TikTok’s primary audience is teens and young adults, with 60% of users aged 16-24, according to Wallaroo Media.

“The company claims that data for its American users is stored in the U.S. and Singapore, but there have definitely been cases in recent years where TikTok has been pressured by the Chinese government and it’s had to give it on various matters,” Wesoky said.

Although data collection and storage is worrying, Wesoky explained that it is much more common among tech companies than many realize.

“The U.S. is one of the few Western countries that doesn’t have good data privacy laws,” Wesoky said.  “As you probably know, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are also vacuuming up a bunch of our data.”

The danger in data storage comes with the influence China can have on America due to the knowledge it gains from its apps users.

“These concerns for privacy on the part of the U.S. would seem more plausible if we had really good privacy laws, which we don’t, but the difference actually involves electoral politics,” Wesoky said. “There are concerns that the data TikTok is collecting as well as its amazing, effective algorithm can be used to subtly influence the US election. It could change what types of videos people see and could push the election, and it wouldn’t have to be major, just tweaking by five or 10%. Some China scholars I’ve read have said they’re really concerned.”

Wesoky explained that censorship and government influence in forms of entertainment is common in China, taking the form of government bans not unlike the one President Trump seeks to implement, though with much higher stakes.

“Bill Clinton famously said something along the lines of, ‘Let China have the internet. Trying to control the internet is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall,’ ” Wesoky said. “Then, when China got the internet, they essentially developed an intranet, where most if not all western sites are blocked.”

According to Wesoky, China’s continuous choices to defy what the U.S. suggested or thought was possible began long before the internet was invented.

“The first issue at stake relates to the nature of the long-term U.S. and China relationship, which is obviously a complicated one,” Wesoky said. “There are many people now that say we’re heading into a cold war with China — and I would agree with that — which is alarming.”

Wesoky explained that, after the Soviet Communist party fell and China began economic reform, the U.S. hoped to have China as a democratic ally in the East.

“There’s a pretty long-standing rule, almost a law, in political science that when countries get richer, they also get more democratic, and China is disproving that,” Wesoky said.

This rule alone had the two countries at odds, as many Americans saw the cold war as a battle against communism rather than against the Soviet Union, according to Wesoky. The U.S. need for allies in the East complicates the ties the two countries have, since many citizens despise the idea of communing with a communist nation.

“Making cohesive China policy is very hard because we need to have a good relationship on some level,” Wesoky said. “We are the two big gorillas in the room and it’s better that we have the ability to engage each other on some level even if we disagree on a lot of things. There are a lot of issues where we have common interests, like nuclear proliferation and climate change. Both countries would be better off if we could collaborate.”

On a global scale, China has gradually been “brought into the fold” through actions like its acceptance into the World Trade Organization  in 2001, but that has not stopped China from continuing old practices, according to Wesoky.

“President Trump’s trade war with China is not unjustified,” Wesoky said. “There are lots of ways that China violates intellectual property and subsidizes businesses in ways that are probably in violation of the WTO, in which all countries are supposed to trade under the same terms.”

Wesoky explained that, while China needs to be held accountable, banning apps is not a valid solution and even causes increased disdain for America in Chinese citizens.

“I had a really interesting conversation with one of my closest friends in China when I was there last fall,” Wesoky said. “She is not a fan of the Chinese government at all, but she said she was really upset by the trade war because her perception is that a lot of Chinese workers work incredibly long, hard hours in factories for Americans to have cheaper things, and she’s not wrong.”

Many Chinese workers have grueling schedules and are paid minimally, leading to events like the string of suicides that occurred at Apple subcontractor Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory between 2007 and 2010.

“She’s not a fan of the Chinese government, but of course she loves her country,” Wesoky said. “We actually end up making Chinese people more supportive of their government when things like this happen. When Americans — or the American government — spend a lot of time attacking China, the response among Chinese people won’t be, ‘Oh, those Americans, they’re right!’ It’ll be like, “Shut up, America! How dare you criticize us!”

On the other side, Americans are not solely to blame for the conflicted relationship, due to the lack of unregulated news sources.

“Most of the time Chinese citizens are getting an incomplete picture of the issue because of media censorship, but it’s still a natural response,” Wesoky said. “I try to not lose sight of the human dimension of it. There are human beings on both sides of the equation, and people in China just want to have a good life for themselves, just like we do.”

While acknowledging that changes must be made, Wesoky explained there is no concrete method to follow.

“There are a lot of China Watchers who say that we need a strategy with respect to China, but just banning some apps is not a strategy,” Wesoky said. “The fact is that China is already a great power. The question is, how is that significant to us? What do we do about that? We can’t change that. Probably in the next few years China’s economy will pass ours in overall size. It can’t be avoided. So what is significant about that? Unless we have a real strategy for how to think about that, what we’re going to do about that, and what issues are at stake, it’s not adequate to deal with it.”