TikTok Creator Balances Interests as China and US Apply Geopolitical Pressure

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TikTok pulls its app from Hong Kong due to concerns of the new national security law; US suggests limiting user access.

The Chinese creater of TikTok, the popular short video platform, intends to pull the app out of Hong Kong due to the new national security law. Beijing fast-tracked national-security legislation that gives law enforcement officials in Hong Kong similar powers to those of mainland China. 

TikTok’s removal from Hong Kong reflects its second exit in two weeks, indicating the geopolitical challenges of the first Chinese-made social media sensation. US social media peers, such as Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., Alphabet Inc., and Microsoft Corp., had already made similar moves from Hong Kong. 

Last week, India, one of TikTok’s largest markets at over 660 million downloads, banned the app due to an escalating border dispute between Beijing and New Delhi. 

US scrutiny intensifies alongside heating tensions between US and China. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that the Trump administration considered limiting US access to the app. Some federal legislators call for an outright ban, claiming that Beijing accesses the app’s data. The Trump administration has already worked to keep network equipment makers Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp. out of its mobile infrastructure, according to Mr. Pompeo. 

“We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users,” said a TikTok spokesman. TikTok had previously reported that it never gave user data to the Chinese government, and had no intention to if asked. 

These pressures serve to fracture the internet along geopolitical lines. Creating national boundaries in cyberspace poses a threat to the first Chinese internet company to thrive in the global mainstream. 

Zoom Video Communications Inc. similarly paused its cooperation with Hong Kong authorities’ requests for user data. Washington criticized Zoom for suspending the accounts of US- and Hong Kong-based activists commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre at Beijing’s request.

“The golden age for these companies to ignore political implications of their operations is gone. They will have to choose where they go and how much they compromise themselves,” said Julien Chaisse, law professor at the City University of Hong Kong.

However, TikTok ended its services in Hong Kong and removed its app from Apple’s App Story and the Google Play story, taking a step further to balance its Chinese foundation with its ambitions in the US.

The company aims to demonstrate its independence from China to India and the US; it hired American Kevin Mayer as the new CEO and stopped using Chinese moderators for overseas content. Mayer wrote a letter to Indian authorities about local hiring and investments in India, as well as the impossibility that the company would share Indian user data with the Chinese government. 

“The U.S. and India are two huge markets they don’t want to lose. Hong Kong is nothing,” said Charles Mok, a Hong Kong lawmaker who represents the city’s information technology sector in the Legislative Assembly.

TikTok is not profitable in Hong Kong, and Bytedance can still provide Douyin, a similar app, for Hong Kong users.

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