If we take a look at TikTok at its face value, a Chinese social media app that rose to fame during the height of the global Coronavirus pandemic, one that features Gen Z and millennials dancing to choreographed moves, it seems like a far cry from geo-political conflicts and implications.
Suddenly, the Bytedance owned platform finds itself thrusted right in the middle of two important political headlines; increasing tensions between the US and China, and China’s new position of authority over Hong Kong.
TikTok to withdraw from Hong Kong
The company said it would withdraw from Hong Kong following China’s new security law that would give the nation more authority over Hong Kong’s laws. The decision by TikTok follows after Facebook and its WhatsApp subsidiary said they would suspend user data requests in the city.
The Hong Kong region is a small, loss-making market for the company, but it’s a significant decision and here’s why. TikTok actually set out to distance itself from China despite being Chinese owned, in order to conquer global markets like the US, but by pulling out of Hong Kong, it could get into testy waters with China. TikTok was designed so it could not be accessed by mainland China.
The US is “looking into banning TikTok
According to secretary of state Mike Pompeo, the US is “certainly looking at” banning Chinese apps including TikTok. This echoes a similar sweeping decision made by the Indian government just last week, when it effectively banned TikTok and a handful of other Chinese apps as tensions escalated between the two countries in the Himalayas. India is a significant market for TikTok, ByteDance has invested more than $1 billion to build its vast Indian user base and could potentially lose as much as $6 billion in India.
“With respect to Chinese apps on peoples’ cellphones, the United States will get this one right too,” said Pompeo amid escalating tensions between Washington and China.
The bottom line
The pressures TikTok faces reflect the continued break-up of the internet along geopolitical lines amid rising tensions between countries. TikTok is in a strategically tricky position; national boundaries being placed upon the platform could very well hinder the growth it’s been working so hard to achieve; a status as the first Chinese app to see global adoption.
TikTok’s strategic struggle also highlights how tech companies can become caught in geo-political crossfires, like with India, Hong Kong and now potentially the US.
“The golden age for these companies to ignore political implications of their operations is gone,” said Julien Chaisse, law professor at the City University of Hong Kong, referring to the Silicon Valley giants as well as TikTok.
Chinese tech companies with global ambitions, like Huawei and TikTok will increasingly find it difficult to navigate political territories, especially when President Trump is taking a proactive approach against Beijing’s influence.