After seemingly forcing TikTok owner to divest its business in the US, the Trump administration is prepared to address “a broad array of national security risks” presented by Chinese internet and software companies.
Speaking to Fox News on Sunday, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated concern over security risks posed by the internet companies based in China but operating on big scale in the US.
“These Chinese software companies doing business in the United States, whether it’s TikTok or WeChat (owned by one of China’s biggest internet companies Tencent), there are countless more, are feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist Party, their national security apparatus,” he said. “[It] could be facial recognition pattern, it could be information about their residence, their phone numbers, their friends, who they’re connected to. Those are the issues that President Trump’s made clear we’re going to take care of. These are true national security issues.”
This came in the midst of intensified manoeuvre over the fate of TikTok’s operation in the US (see the main news). New measures to ban other Chinese tech companies’ operation may come within days, Pompeo said, though, in addition to WeChat, he did not single out other services or companies. Other leading webscale companies out of China, like Alibaba, which is one of the few cloud service providers with global scale, might start to feel uneasy.
There are legitimate concerns especially over privacy data security. At the centre of it is China’s new intelligence law which came into force in 2017 and binds individuals and institutions to cooperate when called upon by the security authorities. When Kunlun Tech, a China-based gaming company was forced to sell the gay dating app Grindr in 2019, the main concern was also that the Chinese company could be demanded by the country’s intelligence authorities to hand over privacy data of “people of interest” which could then be used for blackmailing. Such concern is also a key element behind American and other western countries’ antagonism towards Huawei and ZTE.
On the other hand, there could also be an element of retaliation from “wounded pride”, to quote Duncan Clark, a China expert and author of a biography of Jack Ma, the Alibaba founder. Clark said on a Spectator podcast that, while in the past it was mainly Chinese companies copying Silicon Valley business models and making them into scale business in China, TikTok took over the world from its origin in China.
A side effect of the ban of TikTok and other Chinese services in America, however, is that the US has lost its moral high ground over China, Turkey, and other countries when it comes to internet censorship. It is true that most of the most popular internet services and websites globally are inaccessible in China, at least not without sophisticated bypassing techniques. The US, instead of demanding China to open to these mostly America-based services, is going down the same route, arguably out of security concerns. As Pompeo said, the US used to adopt a more relaxed attitude towards services out of China.
“For a long time, the United States just said, ‘well goodness if we’re having fun with it, or if a company can make money off of it, we’re going to permit that to happen’,” Pompeo told Fox News.
But recent events have changed that attitude and the thinking of the American leadership. Facing off China in the technology arena is becoming one of the very few issues that can win bipartisan support in American politics nowadays.