I had not used TikTok until yesterday. My niece in her mid-20s said she had stopped using the TikTok app — a Chinese-owned video-sharing social networking service — because it’s best suited for teenagers. After downloading and trying the app for a while, I deleted it because she was right.
As for WeChat, I had to reluctantly download the app several years ago. It was the best way to communicate with friends in Beijing, who strongly recommended that I do so. WeChat is still on my cellphone although every WeChat user knows that whatever is communicated on the app is being monitored by relevant authorities.
Tokyo was puzzled by U.S. President Donald Trump’s two executive orders of Aug. 6 announcing restrictions on the use of TikTok and WeChat in the United States. Teenage users in Japan wondered why TikTok was banned and young performers mourned the decision. While Japanese conservative politicians consider proposing banning the apps, some local governments in Japan have already stopped using TikTok.
Should Japan ban the Chinese apps? There seems to be no consensus so far. While many suspect Trump’s orders were part of his re-election campaign, I consider them to be a prelude to the upcoming bipolar digital universe in which existing global internet networks will be divided into two blocs. The following are the reasons why.
What’s wrong with TikTok and WeChat?
The executive order on TikTok claims that “action must be taken to address the threat posed by” TikTok, which “automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories.” I’m not convinced.
“This data collection,” it continues, “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.” Oh, really?
The other executive order states that WeChat “captures the personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the United States, thereby allowing the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.”
Teenagers and young performers in Japan
I imagine that majority of TikTok users in the U.S. are teenagers and that ordinary U.S. citizens hardly use WeChat, because they don’t speak Chinese. If so, how could TikTok or WeChat allow China to “track … Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage”?
Young TikTok users in Japan seem to be ambivalent. While many enjoy the app, some are not satisfied and even complain that TikTok’s management neither controls unauthorized reproductions nor deletes slander and calumny against other users. Those users, however, can easily find an alternative app.
If TikTok is banned in Japan, new performers and the entertainment business may suffer the most. The app is becoming a popular platform for young entertainers to show their performances. Even so, they can easily switch to another app and continue performing. TikTok is by no means a prerequisite service in Japan.
Japanese IT geeks and pundits
Young professionals in Japan who have profound knowledge about internet and cyber technologies may have different views. They tend to consider the U.S. banning of TikTok and WeChat as a retaliatory countermeasure against China for not allowing Google or other social networking services in its territories.
They also argue that TikTok is not the only app that seeks frequent and sizable access to users’ private information. Amazon needs mailing addresses and Google requests GPS data. IT geeks all know that the more convenient apps are, the more sensitive personal data they have direct and frequent access to.
While the central government has no legal authority to designate specific apps to be banned for national security reasons, some lawmakers are concerned about TikTok and other Chinese apps or services. A Liberal Democratic Party parliamentarians’ group on rule-making strategies will propose new legislation to regulate those apps for security reasons.
“We have entered an era when we should look at data collection and utilization from a broader angle, including the implications for national interests and national security,” said the head of the LDP group, reportedly confirming that U.S. officials have been pushing Japan to adopt such a framework.
Many local governments in Japan have used TikTok to attract the attention of young people. Recently, however, Yokohama and Saitama Prefecture closed their TikTok accounts, while Kanagawa Prefecture suspended uploading data and video to its TikTok account “until security is fully confirmed.”
An era of new digital economic blocs
Let’s not be naive. Most social media networking apps, whether made in China, South Korea or the U.S., have a function that “automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories.”
Whether you call it a “backdoor” or not, every smart phone app can do it and China is not the only country to take advantage of that. The problem is not the apps, but that China enacted the National Intelligence Law in 2017. The law’s Article 7 stipulates that “Any organization or citizen shall … cooperate with state intelligence work.”
Banning TikTok and WeChat is just the beginning. We are entering an era when we witness two different internet/cyber systems. One is closed and the other is less closed. The global economy will be divided into two semi-autonomous digital economic blocs, one dominated by China and the other by the U.S.
Of course, Tokyo must eventually ban TikTok, WeChat and other apps of Chinese origin. This is the beginning of a new long-lasting hegemonic rivalry between the two major powers. Although its endgame is not in clear sight yet, Tokyo’s choice is clear. It is to protect Japanese citizens rather than to follow the U.S.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.