Like many others, when I heard the announcement that Trump had issued executive orders aimed at banning TikTok and WeChat I was disappointed, but not surprised. We had all heard his statements about the social media platforms before and have observed the administration’s actions against China. The crisis has mostly been averted now, with federal judges halting the ban and Oracle and Walmart forming a new entity called TikTok Global, but the question still remains, how much of this decision was based on anti-Chinese sentiment?
I would like to preface this by saying, regardless of the motivations behind the ban, China is definitely a bad actor and the data of US citizens ending up in the wrong hands is obviously a national security threat. The Chinese government is an extremely undemocratic, one-party state where civil liberties are often nonexistent, critics of the regime are almost always suppressed and the media is heavily censored and altered to spread misinformation. They have also frequently stolen intellectual property from the US, been behind many cyberattacks and even require that businesses in China report the data of its customers to the government if requested. With ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, and Tencent, the company that own WeChat, being based in China, it’s likely the government can have easy access to our data if they desired and there’s no doubt that the popularity of these apps pose a large risk to our privacy. However, I would still make the argument that this decision to ban TikTok and WeChat is incredibly problematic and a continuation of racism against Asians in the US.
Though not originating with the Trump administration, relations between China and the US have become increasingly tense. We see this with the escalating trade war and the forced closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston. Additionally, many politicians, including Trump, have publicly criticized China’s response to the protests in Hong Kong. China has not taken this well and things only seem to be going downhill from here. While some of this action is valid, the Trump administration seems hell bent on turning China into some sort of boogeyman, associating anything and everything Chinese with evil and tyranny. Unfortunately, it’s working. At speech and debate tournaments, arguments that assume that everything China does is inherently bad are extremely common, claiming that if given the means, China will always seek to do harm. Many Americans that live in rural areas actually believe that China started the coronavirus to harm the US. Even on television, a Fox news anchor, when interviewing a Chinese reporter, assumed that she was working for the Communist party and verbally attacked her when she denied the accusations. In fact, according to Aryani Ong, an attorney that has made a career out of advocating for Asiam-American civil liberties, the Trump administration has become increasingly suspicious of Chinese-Americans who have foreign connections, even if it is just an invitation to teach at a Chinese university. Action has also been taken in some situations, with some losing their jobs or being passed over for leadership positions. This racism has also become increasingly targeted towards Chinese-Americans and even Asian-Americans in general. Trump has repeatedly called COVID-19 variations of the ‘China Plague’ and ‘Wuhan Flu’ implying that the Chinese are responsible for the chaos and death that this pandemic has caused.
But worst of all, Trump seems to be suggesting that only Chinese social media companies are capable of taking our data and invading our privacy. The truth is that there’s a lot of money to be made in the selling of our data and target advertising, therefore every tech company does it. That’s why you always see a bunch of ads for a product after you’ve been searching it up recently. They follow us all over the internet and have a lot of data on what we do. The assumption that our data is only in danger in the hands of Chinese companies is provably false. There’s not a huge amount of privacy protection for consumers, corporations can’t always be trusted to act in the interest of societal well-being and even the government is able to conduct surveillance through the Patriot Act and through the programs that Snowden leaked from the NSA.
The banning of TikTok and WeChat only continues this narrative that the Chinese are our enemy, serves as a scapegoat on which Trump can blame the world’s problems and evils, encourages racism towards Asian-Americans and continues our status as perpetual foreigners.