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Articles

What’s the problem with China and TikTok?

Privacy, human rights, and the Communist party

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August 10, 2020

Over the last few weeks, there has been a cultural firestorm over the viral video sharing app TikTok and a potential ban in the United States. TikTok’s usage surged during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns with millions of users finding reprieve during this difficult season of isolation and social distancing. My colleague Conrad Close and I recently wrote about this application that has taken the world by storm. It is the first major mobile application to be built specifically for the smartphone era and has been wildly successful, with rival social media companies seeking to catch up or even ride the momentum of its innovative approach to video sharing. From Instagram’s newly released Reels to the promised Youtube Shorts, major technology companies see the success of TikTok and desire to be a part of this shift in the way people connect and share information.

Alongside the enjoyable family dance videos, jokes, and even political activism on TikTok, there is a considerable threat to freedom, human rights, and personal privacy that often flies under the radar based on TikTok’s contentious relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and their involvement with private companies. This is one of the main reasons that the United States government has been exploring options of banning or encouraging the sale of the U.S. TikTok operations to a non-Chinese company like Microsoft. 

Often threats to freedom and human rights are characterized as an overreaction to legitimate competition from rival technology companies, but this is a truncated view of the power and influence not only of the CCP in China but also throughout the world. The argument centers on the idea that Chinese companies should have the right to export their values and compete on the open market as anyone else. But should these Chinese technology companies be treated differently on the world stage?

State-backed technology

In The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, Elizabeth C. Economy writes on how President Xi Jinping’s Chinese state embraced technology early on to strengthen the power and influence of the state, while at the same time limiting the freedom and democratization of information for its people. Under Xi Jinping, the CCP wants to embrace the global political influence through China’s innovation hubs, social media companies like TikTok, and the growing economic output through manufacturing. But it also rejects the fundamental democratizing aspects that come with the free flow of information in the public square.

From the “Great Fire Wall,” which filters internet access and content by only allowing “acceptable” content to the Chinese people, to the use of facial recognition technologies powered by artificial intelligence to track and detain government dissidents (including religious minorities like the persecuted Uighur Muslims), China’s heavy-handed approach to technology and state leadership has allowed it to emerge as a global superpower on the world stage without any true accountability. The CCP’s influence in global affairs has also led nations around the world to passively accept Chinese dogma such as the controversial “One China” policy in relation to Taiwan, growing influence in Hong Kong through the recent enacted security law, and insider access to valuable data and information collected by its rapidly growing technology sector. This influence includes control over companies and their data collection such as TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, 5G network and telecom provider Huawei, and even the popular messaging app WeChat.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last Wednesday, “With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok, WeChat, and others are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for CCP content censorship.” These threats to personal data and privacy have to do with the unique relationship between Chinese companies and the Communist party. Chinese technology companies like ByteDance are required to cooperate with “state intelligence work” per the 2017 Chinese National Intelligence Law. This type of agreement not only allows Chinese interference in personal data captured by these applications, but also gives the government wide-reaching control and power over how these companies operate and with whom they associate.

According to the Canadian government’s assessment of the 2017 intelligence law, “the law’s vague definition of intelligence in the opening articles suggests intelligence includes both information collected and activities conducted in support of comprehensive state security.” This broad and overreaching authority in a company’s affairs is concerning on a number of fronts, but none more important than issues surrounding basic human rights and freedoms. In an ironic twist given the Chinese restrictions on a open and free internet, Reuters reports that in response to the U.S. government’s actions last week, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said the United States “has no right” to set up a “Clean Network” and calls the actions by Washington as “a textbook case of bullying.”

Standing for the oppressed

It is understandable that there would be controversy surrounding the potential ban of TikTok throughout the world, especially in the United States, because of the popularity of the app and the relative freedoms we experience. Our nation is based on a democratic form of government, where our government leaders are accountable to the people and our nation’s laws are subject to our elected representatives. While questions and concerns abound about the proper role of government and of technology companies in the public square, the United States (and other Western nations) have the ability to enact change and even protest the presence of repressive measures in ways that the Chinese people simply do not. We also have the ability to publicly disagree with our government’s position and decisions. This is part of what separates our nation from authoritarian regimes, like China.

Chinese citizens are denied basic human rights and are subject to draconian laws that seek to dehumanize and suppress any dissidents against the CCP’s power and control. This is clearly seen in the recently enacted Hong Kong security law which bans sedition, secession, and subversion. As my colleague Chelsea Patterson Sobolik has said, “China is remaking Hong Kong in its own image, and freedom-loving men and women on the island-city and around the world are concerned. Hongkongers have watched how the communist government treats its citizens, severely restricting their freedoms of religion, assembly, and speech.”

China has a long record of blatant human rights and religious liberty violations that have been thrust on the world stage with the continued revelations of the treatment of Uighur Muslims and other minorities. These men and women created in God’s image have been subjected to concentration like camps, forced work, renunciation of their faith, and government propaganda, all in hopes of strengthening Chinese “national security”—a cover for authoritarian power grabs and state control.

The security and privacy concerns with Chinese technologies like TikTok, Huawei, and others do not only concern American citizens. These issues also extend to the treatment of other image-bearers who do not experience the same freedoms we are guaranteed in this country. Christians should be among the first to stand up against and speak clearly on these blatant violations of human rights because we believe that every person—no matter where they live or what they believe—are image-bearers of God himself and deserve the utmost respect and dignity.

Often standing up for the oppressed means giving up some of your own freedoms and opportunities as you seek to see justice enacted and human life valued. These sacrifices pale in comparison to the lack of freedom and opportunities experienced by our fellow image-bearers, especially those under the heavy authoritarian hand of the Chinese Communist Party. We stand with the oppressed, all of whom are created in the image of our Maker, because our Savior bled and died for us when we had nothing to offer and stood oppressed by our own.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and creative director at ERLC. In his role as creative director, he oversees the communications team, including all creative design projects.  His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with Zondervan. He is a graduate … Read More