scorecardThe debate over banning TikTok has been poisoned by anti-Asian rhetoric
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The debate over banning TikTok has been poisoned by anti-Asian rhetoric

Paayal Zaveri   

The debate over banning TikTok has been poisoned by anti-Asian rhetoric
Tech7 min read
  • The TikTok CEO's testimony to Congress in March highlighted the anti-Asian rhetoric around the app.
  • There are concerns over TikTok, but making it a punching bag in place of China doesn't fix anything.

Two things can be true at the same time.

First: There are security concerns around TikTok, largely thanks to its parent company's ties to China's ruling communist party. Critics say that beyond the threat that the Chinese government could misuse TikTok user data, the app could be used to spread pro-China propaganda.

And second: The discourse around those issues, particularly talk of banning the app entirely in the US, has been poisoned by a surge in anti-Asian rhetoric, making it difficult to have a national conversation around TikTok in good faith.

At the root of things is that the battle over TikTok's future has become a proxy for America's tensions with China. And just as those tensions have played into an overall rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination in the US, the conversation around TikTok has been surrounded by rhetoric that many Asian Americans see as xenophobic and outright racist.

Take, for a recent example, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew's testimony in front of Congress in March. At the hearing, CNN reported, lawmakers mangled Chew's name, pushed the CEO — who is Singaporean — on his personal ties to China, and used their time to launch tirades against the Chinese Communist Party without giving the CEO a chance to respond.

Congress has grilled other tech CEOs over the past several years, including Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Satya Nadella, and Sundar Pichai. But what set the hearing with TikTok's CEO apart was the tone and personal nature of the questions, Asian American and Pacific Islander advocacy groups said. At those other tech CEOs' hearings, the questions were similar but positioned more broadly about the industry, while some of the questions to Chew appeared to make an underlying assumption about his connection to the Chinese government.

For example: Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas said that, according to Chinese law, "any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work in accordance with the law and maintain the secrecy of all knowledge of state intelligence work.

"In other words, ByteDance — and also your TikTok employees that live in China — they must cooperate with Chinese intelligence whenever they are called upon. And if they are called upon, they're bound to secrecy — and that would include you."

He appeared to brush it off when Chew pointed out that he was Singaporean.

Crenshaw's office said Thursday that the congressman wasn't referring to whether Chew was Chinese, but was pointing out that — in Crenshaw's view — Chew would be required to cooperate with the Chinese government in his role as TikTok CEO because the social company is owned by China-controlled ByteDance. "The congressman obviously knows that Chew resides in Singapore," a spokeswoman said. "The issue is where ByteDance is geographically based."

Still, the rhetoric at times seemed to paint the Chinese people with a broad brush and conflated people of Chinese ancestry with the will of the CCP. That paints a target on the back of Asian Americans, Chinese nationals living in the US, and, by extension, all other Asian populations, advocacy experts said.

"Our lawmakers are basically engaging in xenophobic showboating," the privacy-advocacy group Fight for the Future's Evan Greer said in a CNN interview after the hearing.

Making Chew and TikTok into a punching bag for America's frustrations with China is likely to have several detrimental effects, advocates for the Asian American community have said. If lawmakers let their distrust of China get in the way of a rational assessment of the situation, it allows for mistakes to enter into the policymaking process.

"Unfortunately, because there was so much generic xenophobia, or what I might call broad statements about the so-called threats posed by the generic Chinese, it was hard to get an actual assessment of the national security threats that TikTok might pose," John Yang, the president of advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said.

"One question I asked myself is if the former CEO of TikTok who was not Asian was testifying, whether he would have received the same treatment," Yang added, referring to Kevin Mayer.

This kind of rhetoric could also have other detrimental effects, Yang and other experts said. International students in the US studying tech might decide not to stay in the country after seeing how TikTok is treated, depriving America of the tech talent it needs to stay competitive. Similarly, it could feed into the perception that America is unwelcoming to immigrant tech workers, he said.

"The students, the entrepreneurs that are coming to the United States because they want to escape an authoritarian regime in China because they recognize the freedoms that the United States has to offer and they embrace it, we are discouraging them from coming here and staying here," Yang said.

Tensions between the US and China have been building

TikTok has been a political target for years, first during the Trump administration and now during the Biden administration. It's being threatened with a ban if it doesn't divest its American business from ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns it, to address its risk to national security.

America is also reevaluating its economic ties to China more broadly, especially after the country's government role in violence against the Uyghur Muslim minority and in suppressing the independence of Hong Kong.

There are also economic tensions as the US pursues a policy of countering China's growing economic and cultural clout — including by banning Chinese tech giants like Huawei from doing business in the US. In response, China and its leader, Xi Jinping, have pledged their support to the private sector.

In that light, the concerns of TikTok's critics have some validity: If China decided to throw its weight around and influence TikTok's famed algorithm, it could have ripple effects through American society. In the same way that Facebook and Twitter have fallen prey to bad actors influencing the national conversation, TikTok could be next.

In a recent speech, according to China's state-owned news agency Xinhua, Xi said his party "has always regarded private enterprises and private entrepreneurs as our own people" and would provide them with support whenever they run into difficulties.

There are real concerns surrounding TikTok, but they're overshadowed

There are legitimate concerns about TikTok, given that ByteDance is subject to China's broad surveillance laws. It's possible that its government could force TikTok to turn over US user data.

TikTok is used by 150 million Americans each month, and the algorithm is extremely sophisticated. As we've seen with Facebook, there are risks with what people see in their feeds and in how algorithms can influence the national mood. The fact that those algorithms could be influenced by the Chinese government is concerning.

However, experts have said the US government hasn't shown specific or direct evidence of a national security threat from TikTok. There's been only speculation about how American user data might be used or on how the Chinese government might be able to promote propaganda via the app, Ashley Gorski, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said.

While TikTok has been embroiled in data-privacy scandals over the years, Gorski said, so have American companies such as Meta and Uber. TikTok recently came under scrutiny for tracking journalists' locations to uncover their sources. Banning TikTok won't necessarily prevent this type of data gathering or sharing.

Gorski suggested that what's needed before considering a ban was a set of strong regulations for social-media data privacy — without tying those rules to any one app, no matter what country it's from.

"Rather than selectively banning a single app, consumer-privacy legislation would do much more to actually protect Americans' privacy by limiting the volume and types of data that companies are collecting and using in the first place," she said.

Those discussions are overshadowed by a heavy focus on one app.

Anti-Asian rhetoric was already on the rise

It's important to note that this is all happening while anti-Asian rhetoric has been on the rise over the past few years, fueled in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic. While still in office, President Donald Trump referred to the virus as the "kung flu" and the "China virus."

His comments correlated with an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, Manjusha Kulkarni, a cofounder of Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks hate crimes, said. The rhetoric around TikTok is adding to the problem, she added. And the perpetrators of those hate crimes aren't stopping at people of Chinese descent; targets can include anyone who "looks" to be Asian.

"What matters is not your specific national origin, but whether you match the phenotype of what they see as the enemy," Kulkarni said. "But it is that phenotype, the xenophobia combined that political leaders are willing to exploit and fuel."

This isn't the first time in US history that an ethnic group has been targeted for discrimination amid a panic over national security. Kulkarni likens the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes to the discrimination faced by Muslims (and groups perceived to be Muslim, like the Sikh community) following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Those groups faced a surge in hate crimes, as well as increased surveillance from the government.

The rhetoric has consequences for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the US economy

All this has implications for the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the US and the global Asian diaspora.

The US is becoming less welcoming to people from China: A bill recently introduced in Texas would bar Chinese and North Korean students from enrolling in the state's public universities.

Ultimately, the longer this rhetoric continues, the harder it is to have a discussion and action on TikTok's data privacy and national security concerns, experts said.

"The discussions that we should be having is around, specifically, sort of the extent to which TikTok might be under the influence of the Chinese government, and in a very real sense, not just because of the legal regime but sort of actual evidence," Yang said. "I think those are fair areas for inquiry that were just mildly touched upon during the hearing."

Update: April 27, 2023 — This article was updated with a statement from Rep. Dan Crenshaw's office disputing that the congressman was singling out the TikTok CEO because of his national origin. It was also updated with a fuller quote from Crenshaw's exchange with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.




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