On another train The Trump administration, destined to spark tension with the Chinese government, targeted TikTok and WeChat on Thursday. Citing national security concerns, the president signed two executive orders preventing Americans or anyone under US jurisdiction from doing business using the social media apps. Orders will take effect within 45 days and appear to give TikTok leeway for Microsoft to take over. According to information, the company is in talks to buy parts of the video platform from its parent company ByteDance.
Although vaguely worded, the orders could have far-reaching consequences, including for the future of the relatively free and open Internet in America. WeChat, owned by China̵
In a statement, TikTok said it was “shocked” by the orders. The company has repeatedly insisted that it is under no obligation to the Chinese government, arguing that the Trump administration has provided no evidence that the app poses a risk to US citizens. “For nearly a year now, we’ve been working in good faith with the US government to find a constructive solution to the concerns raised,” said TikTok. “What we found instead was that the administration was disregarding the facts, dictating the terms of an agreement without going through normal legal processes, and trying to get involved in negotiations between private companies.” TikTok, which has tens of millions of users in the US, caught the attention of lawmakers last fall, who expressed concern about its ties with Beijing.
A Tencent spokesman said the company had “reviewed the order for understanding.” WeChat has over 1 billion users, most of them in China, who rely on the app for everything from messaging to paying for coffee to booking doctor’s appointments. In the United States, it is an important way for immigrants and students to reach relatives and friends back home. “If this happens and it really becomes impossible to use WeChat here, it will be a big factor for Chinese people who are considering studying here, visiting here, and doing something here,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, editor-in-chief of SupChina and co-founder from the China Affairs Podcast Sinica.
At the same time, WeChat is strictly censored and monitored, including abroad, and has become a way for the Chinese Communist Party to suppress minority groups such as Uighur Muslims. Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said she and other critics of the Chinese government had switched to private networks and encrypted apps like Signal even before Trump’s order for WeChat. “There are currently opportunities to communicate freely and safely with people in China,” she says. “You are cumbersome, but then you are not subject to the Chinese government’s censorship and surveillance.”
Tencent also owns Riot Games, makers of the popular League of legendsand has a large stake in Epic Games, maker of Fourteen days. But a White House official said so Los Angeles times that the order does not affect the games.
China has long blocked overseas competitors for WeChat like Facebook and Twitter. “The Chinese government is the one that is actively involved in the prohibition business and it has a huge head start on the Trump administration,” wrote Donald Clarke, a Chinese legal specialist at George Washington University, in a blog post.
However, civil liberties groups warn that stooping at China’s level will not do much. “The selective ban on entire platforms affects freedom of expression on the Internet and does nothing to solve the broader problem of unjustified surveillance by the government, including our own government,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project Explanation.
Trump’s executive orders could have a significant impact on U.S. tech companies doing business in China, especially if the Chinese government retaliates. Facebook, for example, makes billions of dollars from advertisers in the country who seek to reach overseas consumers. It’s not clear how Trump’s order may affect Apple, which China sees as the primary market for the iPhone. The policy seems to imply that they can no longer offer WeChat globally on their app store, but it’s so vague it’s hard to tell. It is also possible that Trump’s orders are facing legal challenges. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.