TikTok: Chinese app may be banned in US, says Pompeo

BBC Technology 07 Jul 2020 11:57
By James Clayton North America technology reporter
Mike PompeoImage copyright CBS

Would you recommend downloading TikTok? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked that question on Monday night on Fox News.

"Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party," he replied.

Asked if he would ban Chinese apps - including TikTok - he said: "I don't want to get out in front of the president, but it's something we're looking at".

That is a very worrying statement for TikTok.

The huge Chinese social media company has experienced phenomenal growth in the last three years. It's been downloaded more than two billion times.

But around the world, and not just in the US, TikTok is facing a backlash.

It's finding out the hard way that being international, a tech company, and Chinese isn't a great combination right now.

By far its largest market, India, banned TikTok last week, along with 58 other Chinese apps.

Two weeks before, a border skirmish on India's northern frontier with China left 20 Indian soldiers dead. It's not known how many Chinese troops were killed.

Image copyright SANJAY BAID

It was a pretty extraordinary statement that flew relatively under the radar. The US government had congratulated the banning of TikTok in another country.

Much of this can be linked to Huawei, says James Sullivan, head of cyber research at British security think-tank Rusi.

Distance from China

Monday saw TikTok announce it would quit Hong Kong "within days" after a new National Security Law was brought in.

This was more than a statement from TikTok though - it was a grand gesture. A clear neon-lit sign that says: "TikTok is not close to the Chinese government."

Earlier this year it hired an American chief executive, Kevin Mayer.

'We would not comply'

On Friday, Mr Mayer wrote a letter to the Indian government.

"If we do ever receive such a request in the future, we would not comply."

But it hasn't won over the doubters.

"It is an incredibly difficult moment for the Chinese tech companies," says Dr Yu Jie from internal relations think-tank Chatham House.

Already the sharks are circling. Facebook is pushing its Instagram Reels feature , which lets you post fun 15-second videos, in India and elsewhere. Sound familiar?

TikTok is not Huawei. It's not building the infrastructure of 5G - it's a social media company.

In his interview with Fox News, Mr Pompeo made the direct comparison between TikTok and Huawei.

James Sullivan of Rusi believes security issues need to be looked at separately to actions based on sanctioning China.

Hurting China

It's also pretty clear that the US is looking to hurt China too, and focusing on its tech sector could be a lever it decides to pull.

But it's TikTok that is now fighting for its life. Frozen out of its biggest market, India, it now faces the prospect of losing the US - another huge market for the company.

"We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked," TikTok said in a statement to Reuters news agency.

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TikTokTikTokChinese Communist PartyHuaweiIndia
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