Americans will soon be prohibited from using two of the most popular Chinese social platforms as political tensions between the nations rise.
President Donald Trump late Thursday night signed separate executive orders effectively banning TikTok and WeChat in the U.S. in 45 days time, prohibiting U.S. businesses and citizens from any transaction on the platforms. In a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Trump said his decision was based on “the national emergency with respect to the information and communications technology and services supply chain.” It appears to be one of the first instances of consumer technology being outright banned in the U.S.
Talk in recent weeks has swirled around TikTok, with Trump openly considering a ban, then demanding its parent company ByteDance sell it to an American operator, then saying the U.S. should somehow get a cut of the sale deal beyond taxes. But in Thursday’s executive order, he said WeChat poses a “similar threat.”
Microsoft admitted publicly last week that it is in talks to acquire TikTok for an undisclosed price. Reported valuations of the deal have ranged between $10 billion and $30 billion.
TikTok for its part said Friday in a statement that it is “shocked” by the executive order, saying it “was issued without any due process.”
“For nearly a year, we have sought to engage with the US government in good faith to provide a constructive solution to the concerns that have been expressed,” the company said. “What we encountered instead was that the Administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses.”
“We will pursue all remedies available to us in order to ensure that the rule of law is not discarded and that our company and our users are treated fairly – if not by the Administration, then by the US courts.”
A representative of WeChat could not be immediately reached for comment.
WeChat is owned by Tencent, based in China, and has grown into one of the the worlds most-used apps since it launched in 2011, with about 1.2 billion monthly active users. It’s extremely popular in China and used for myriad things, from a chat platform to payments in stores and restaurants.
Meanwhile, TikTok is a simpler platform that’s based on social sharing of short form videos set to music. It’s grown significantly since 2017, when ByteDance acquired it, and now has about 800 million monthly active users. It’s much more widely used in the U.S. than WeChat, with about 100 million U.S. users.
“Like TikTok, WeChat automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users — threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information,” the order reads. “In addition, 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.”
The orders do not site any specific evidence or investigations into the claims of what the apps do with user data, the collection of which is an industry wide practice in tech. They go on to say that WeChat and TikTok “censor content” that China, which is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, “deems politically sensitive.” The order said the censorship on the platforms “may also be used for disinformation campaigns.” Again, no specific evidence or supporting U.S. investigations were cited
ByteDance has denied repeatedly in recent months, as Trump and his White House began talking about supposed security issues with TikTok, that it shares any company data with the Chinese Government. Nevertheless, Trump’s White House started speaking negatively about the platform in public not long after hundreds of users of the platform started to take credit for signing up for a Trump rally in Tulsa, Okla. and intentionally not showing up. After Trump bragged repeatedly about the massive crowd expected at the event, the 19,000 seat arena was left far from full. Numerous reports came out after that the president was furious about the lack of attendance and the optics it created.
Not long after that, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Republican and a member of the fringe Tea Party movement within that party, started to float a TikTok ban, based on the notion that the platform’s base in Beijing represented a “national security threat” related to the possibility of data sharing with the Chinese government. It also comes amid the coronavirus pandemic, which President Trump and some members of his administration have repeatedly blamed on China, even often using racial language when speaking about the virus.
Before Trump decided to ban the TikTok and WeChat, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi did the same, along with dozens of other China-based apps, including Weibo. That ban was part of a response to a deadly June fight between Indian and Chinese troops on a contested part of the border between the nations.
But the move to ban TikTok in the U.S. is likely to prove unpopular, since it is so widely used among younger people. A recent Morning Consult survey found that almost 60 percent of Gen Z users said that app “should not” be banned in the U.S, with 47 percent of Millennials saying the same.
And there is a rebellious streak among the Gen Zers surveyed by Morning Consult. Twenty-five percent said they would actually be “more likely to use the platform” if a ban of TikTok was seriously being considered. And Gen Z has an increasingly positive opinion of the app, with 55 percent having a “favorable impression” of TikTok in June, up from 43 percent at the start of the year.