CARAFANO: Tick Tock For TikTok


James Carafano Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that the U.S. should take an aggressive stand against TikTok because of the national security risks posed by the Chinese-owned company. You can find a counterpoint here, where Will Rinehart, a senior research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, argues that the U.S. should not make a decisive move against TikTok until definitive proof of wrongdoing can be found. 

Why is the Trump administration going after TikTok, a popular video-sharing social networking service owned by a Chinese-based internet technology company? It’s not that the White House is fed up with the endless videos of stupid dog tricks or adolescent synchronized dance moves. The administration issued its sell-or-get-out ultimatum for a very good reason: As long as TikTok remains in Chinese hands, it poses a serious economic and national security threat to all Americans.

Trump doesn’t have it in for every Chinese company operating here. For example, when Anbang, the Chinese insurance giant, bought the landmark Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, it didn’t trigger late night meetings in the West Wing.

But the White House is quite rightly concerned about a handful of Chinese global technology companies whose products and services can give them broad access to information on most everything our private citizens, businesses and government officials plan, say and do.

The regime in Beijing knows that knowledge is power and has been long committed to making China “the” global information super power. Its goal is to be able to collect information from around the world and weaponize it, wielding information the way other countries use money or military might to achieve their objectives.

With a tremendous boost from the theft of intellectual property from American and other foreign corporations and universities, China is now a world leader in two key areas of R&D: artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Beijing is now on the cusp of an almost unimaginable capability to decrypt, sift through, analyze and exploit massive amounts of data. What they seek now is the virtually unlimited capacity to hoover up American information. With that in the bank, the weaponization can begin.

But, some may object, TikTok isn’t the Chinese government. Let’s be clear: every company in China works for the Chinese Communist Party. They are required, by law, to turn over any information they can access, whenever the Party asks for it. It’s not just a matter of cooperating with the regime or being friendly to it. They must take and obey all orders from the regime, and that includes handing over any American data they touch, regardless of privacy commitments, legal concerns or respect for intellectual property.

The administration is rightly concerned about any company that can deliver the keys to the information kingdom to Beijing. That’s what motivated the White House campaigns against letting the Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE build out the 5G telecom infrastructure for our nation and our allies.

TikTok is another of those companies that raises legitimate concerns. More than 14 million Americans are already on the platform, and that number is growing by leaps and bounds. Those Americans are happily dumping all kinds of information into the service, most of them blithely unaware that all that data winds up in China and can be used and abused for all kinds of purposes. Clearly, this poses an information security threat.

If TikTok wants to operate in the U.S., its operations should not be controlled by Beijing. The administration has, in principle, accepted a proposal that the company divest itself of its U.S. operations and sell them to an American partner, such as Microsoft. The government didn’t invent this solution. It arose from the private sector, which came forward and said, “We could make this work.”

Beijing, of course, is not wild about the idea. It brazenly claimed the U.S. was trying to “steal” TikTok. Nonsense! Whoever buys TikTok’s U.S. operations would pay a fair market value.

While the buy-out may leave Beijing sulking, it would be good for American consumers. The U.S. social networking landscape could use more diversity and competition. The current security concerns could be reasonably addressed, making TikTok at least as safe as other U.S, based platforms. The deal would also bring with it more U.S. jobs, more U.S. profit and more U.S. tax revenues.

This would be a win-win for everybody, except the Chinese Communist Party and its grand imperial designs.

It’s always good to see Washington focus on the big issues — like how to succeed in the great power competition. It’s even better when our leaders come up with responsible, credible solutions that protect our security, increase our prosperity, and safeguard our freedoms.

That’s what the administration has done here. In doing so, it is also sending the right message to Beijing: “We are not going to stand by and let the world be run by Beijing rules. Rather, we are pressing for a world where China respects other nations and their citizens and treats them fairly.

A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research in matters of national security and foreign relations.