The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion TikTok and the long arm of the Chinese government

The Tik Tok app on an iPhone on Nov. 1 in San Anselmo, Calif.
The Tik Tok app on an iPhone on Nov. 1 in San Anselmo, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

IT WAS a bad week for TikTok — and a good week for the long arm of the Chinese government under whose auspices the app’s parent company, ByteDance, operates.

TikTok is virally popular among middle- and high-schoolers, but far less so among lawmakers skeptical of the video-sharing service’s implications for national security. What should really worry them is censorship. Last Monday, a 17-year-old student in New Jersey named Feroza Aziz was suspended from the platform after posting what started as a makeup tutorial and then took a turn toward activism: Viewers who tuned in to learn how they could get long eyelashes were instead urged to research China’s repression and cultural genocide of its Uighur Muslim minority.

TikTok has repeatedly protested that it is independent from the regime and that its content moderation policies in the United States are sensitive to this country’s different norms around free expression. The suspension of Ms. Aziz’s account, the company said, had nothing to do with her stand against the atrocities in Xinjiang. Instead, she had violated TikTok’s rules against “terrorist content” by referencing Osama bin Laden in a separate satirical post. Then the company reversed course and said the whole matter was the result of a “human moderation error.”

Ms. Aziz, unsurprisingly, is skeptical. So should everyone be, when a leaked excerpt of the platform’s terms revealed that its reviewers are instructed to reduce the visibility of political and protest content — such as depictions of public assemblies that “include violence.” The document represents an easing of previous standards that had also affected even more innocuous material, such as “mocking” and “criticizing” elected officials, from “calling for impeachment” to “lip-syncing.” But the changes still give the lie to TikTok’s insistence that “political sensitivities” do not factor into its decisions.

There’s additional reason to suspect China’s government has an interest in exerting control over what people talk about on its prized export platforms: The Verge reports that Chinese Americans have been barred from praising pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong on the messaging service WeChat. Tencent, which owns WeChat, suggested that some of these users might have been accessing the national instead of international version of the app — which would subject them to Chinese law. But how that could have occurred without their knowledge remains a mystery.

U.S. technology companies are used to setting the rules of the road for the world, and that has meant a radical openness, with all its ups and, more recently, its downs, as well. China has never wanted to let that openness in, but it has always been eager to spread its closed system out. Countries that still want their own citizens to live freely should say no.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Could TikTok allow China to export repression?

The Post’s View: The colossal digital police state in China grows even larger

Josh Rogin: Chinese tech firms don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt

Josh Rogin: Facebook wakes up to the China challenge

Molly Roberts: OK, boomer. The kids are fighting back.