TikTok’s leaders protest that they store local information locally, so whatever data the company has on the behavioral patterns or personal attributes of some of the most vulnerable American citizens are not “subject to Chinese law.” But it’s reasonable to wonder whether TikTok might not comply with targeted intelligence requests from the repressive regime ruling over its parent company ByteDance. TikTok’s younger users will be voting in the coming years; down the line, they may hold positions of power. A trove of their information is a valuable asset.
It’s also reasonable to wonder about TikTok leaders’ claim that they have “never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content” — especially in light of The Post’s reporting that none of the strife in Hong Kong made its way onto the app’s search screens.
The TikTok anxiety captures a more general concern about China’s ability to export its anti-democratic norms. U.S. companies are largely unable to operate in China on their own terms, if they’re able to operate there at all. Yet the relationship isn’t reciprocal: China seeks to stretch its arms as far as possible and squeeze. Douyin, the mainland’s version of TikTok, is heavily censored. The threat is that the censorship won’t end where the country’s borders do.
Nowhere is Xi Jinping’s interest in worming his regime’s way around the world clearer than in the case of Chinese students at U.S. universities; they reside in our physical space but in China’s cyberspace. Their actions and communications are monitored, and their media diets restricted. It is difficult enough for any college student to break out of the worldview they grew up with, though that sort of broadening is what college is for. It is almost impossible with a suffocating state building a box around even those citizens who have chosen to leave.
TikTok has enabled an explosion of creativity here in the United States, allowing a rising generation to enjoy some of the early promise of the Internet. It’s exactly this promise that China threatens to crush. This government should pull whatever levers it can to ensure that a country that will not allow democracy in is unable to push authoritarianism outward.