It has been a bumpy week for China’s beleaguered technology giants. They are under increasing scrutiny overseas, and the communist party continues to tighten the screws on them at home. In many ways they are also their own worst enemies.
The UK has become the latest government to ban the Chinese-owned TikTok from government devices over security concerns. Parliament has also banned the app from its network. This follows similar bans from the European Union and 11 countries, including France, New Zealand, Denmark and the US. Western lawmakers are unconvinced by TikTok’s often cack-handed attempts to distance itself from its Chinese parent, ByteDance, and that company’s obligations to the Chinese communist party.
TikTok called Parliament’s move ‘misguided,’ and said it was ‘based on fundamental misconceptions about our company’.
But for Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, it was just a start. ‘It was a relief to see it happen,’ she told me. ‘It should have been a wider ban, and the reality is we are still not acting effectively enough on tech-authoritarianism.’ TikTok has spent lavishly on expensive lobbyists and lawyers to press its case and pounce on any criticism in western capitals. But on the evidence so far, it has not been money well spent.
In Washington, TikTok’s lacklustre CEO, Shou Zi Chew, faced hostile questioning from US lawmakers. ‘Let me state this unequivocally, ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,’ he claimed to widespread scepticism.
The company also claimed implausibly that its incorporation in the Cayman Islands shields it from Chinese legal obligations to help CCP security agencies, and that even if asked to hand over data it would not do so. That certainly didn’t convince Rob Joyce, the head of the US National Security Agency’s cybersecurity arm.