ATfter hunting Chinese balloons, the United States is going to war with its own teenagers. The target is their favorite social media, where they learn the latest viral dance, how to wear their jeans and how to make accordion potatoes. TikTok, the flagship of Chinese soft power, is in the crosshairs for Washington. On Monday, February 27, the White House ordered that the app be deleted from all smartphones owned by US federal agencies within 30 days. Already in December 2022, President Joe Biden banned the use of the app on government employees’ phones.
For their part, lawmakers are setting up committees to try to get the app banned on US soil. Republican Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin representative and chairman of the US House of Representatives Select Committee on China, said “the exact same strategy, tactics and technology that the Chinese Communist Party uses to control the Chinese people in China are increasingly the same strategy, tactics and technology they’re using to control Americans.”
Unlike the balloon war, the US is not alone in this new battle. On February 23, the European Commission asked its staff to uninstall TikTok from their phones and Canada followed suit on Monday. Why are Europe and North America suddenly attacking the popular app, now gathering more than 1 billion users of which a third are under 20 years old, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP)? The cause lies in two major fears haunting the two continents: the invasion of privacy, a traditional concern of Europeans, and Chinese recruitment, which has Gallagher deeply concerned.
Determination to fight Chinese ambitions too strong
In his January trip to Brussels, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew promised to “improve the security of user data in Europe.” The idea is to set up local data storage centers to minimize data flows outside Europe. In 2020, similar promises followed former president Donald Trump’s threat of banning the app in the United States.
Who will win the game, the teenage fans of the fast-paced social network or the old lawmakers in Washington, Ottawa and Brussels? In truth, TikTok owes its success to its competition, so cherished by the US.
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A few years ago, Facebook and its subsidiaries, Instagram and WhatsApp, seemed invincible. In less than five years, the Chinese newcomer has knocked them off balance. But the determination to fight the Chinese ambitions is too strong. A process of decoupling is on the way – and TikTok will be its symbol. It will frustrate millions of young people (125 million in Europe), but it will be easier than giving up on battery cells, solar panel parts and refined lithium, the production of which is overwhelmingly dominated by China.
In areas such as textiles and consumer goods, alternatives are emerging elsewhere in Asia. But it will be difficult, and not necessarily desirable in terms of energy transition, to do without the country that has single-handedly carried the hopes and concerns of 30 years of globalization.