U.S. Takes off the Gloves with Tik Tok, WeChat…and Canada?


U.S. Takes off the Gloves with Tik Tok, WeChat…and Canada?

Last Thursday evening, the Trump administration published three executive orders on the White House website in quick succession. The first re-imposes a 10 percent tariff on U.S. imports of Canadian aluminum (specifically on “non-alloyed unwrought aluminum articles”). The second blocks all U.S. transactions with Bytedance, the parent company of social media app TikTok, effective in 45 days (September 20th). The third order is essentially a carbon copy of the second, except that instead of targeting Bytedance and Tiktok, it blocks all U.S. transactions with Tencent’s WeChat (and potentially with Tencent in general, subject to future orders), also effective September 20th.   

The stated reason for all three orders is basically the same: Canadian aluminum, TikTok, and WeChat all pose a threat to U.S. national security. Importing Canadian aluminum, for instance, “impairs the national security of the United States.” Americans sharing videos on TikTok is apparently even more serious as it threatens the “national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” (Having spent some time on TikTok, it seems to us the only thing the app really threatens is our collective national IQ, but we digress.) As for WeChat, you guessed it – national security concerns. Blocking WeChat is a crucial step “to protect our Nation.”

In the Canada executive order, the Trump administration did not actually accuse Canada of doing anything wrong. The executive order simply stated that because U.S. imports of Canadian aluminum had increased 87 percent in the last year, tariffs had become necessary. The only thing Canada seems to be guilty of is providing a product the U.S. needs at a competitive price. That is no doubt a tough pill for U.S. aluminum producers to swallow, but what kind of country does the U.S. want to be? One where the federal government intervenes to protect unprofitable industries because of fabricated national security concerns but falls woefully short of investing in education, healthcare, and infrastructure because the “free market” knows best? At least in China state-run capitalism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

For TikTok and WeChat, the Trump administration was a little more specific about the potential harm caused – but just a little. The U.S. asserts, for instance, that TikTok collects data on Americans and sends it to the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), which can use it to track down the locations of Federal employees, blackmail American citizens, and engage in corporate espionage. TikTok’s real crime? It is too popular. The U.S. started paying attention when it became the fastest-growing social media network in the U.S. earlier this year. WeChat, it seems, is guilty of the same thing: of providing a reliable product that people want. God forbid Chinese citizens studying or living in the U.S. be able to text their grandmothers back home via WeChat, which is a slippery slope. Surely the CPC would use this information to blow up aircraft carriers in the South China Sea.

That may sound glib, so let’s caveat it by not underestimating the threat posed by China. When we travel to China (or Russia or other potentially risky countries when it comes to data collection), we take different devices that we would never use on our home networks. We have been covering and warning about how authoritarian governments use the internet and social media apps for their own benefit since long before it was in vogue to do so. The CPC is a particularly bad offender. It has been regulating the Chinese people’s access to the internet and to global information flows for decades. The Chinese government wants to gather data on a massive scale to better control its population, which means everything from eliminating Uighur distinctiveness to constructing a dystopian social credit system. For those of us who cherish our individual liberties and rights, this sort of system is the stuff of nightmares.

The CPC, however, is not synonymous with Tencent or Bytedance or Huawei. Case in point: one of the reasons the world knows what is going on in Xinjiang is because of WeChat. If you are doing business in China, or even just communicating with a friend or colleague in China, WeChat is the primary way to do so. It’s a gap in the Great Firewall – a gap sanctioned by the Chinese government, no doubt – but a gap nonetheless. Banning it does not enhance U.S. national security, it only blocks connection and communication between the American and Chinese peoples. (Presumably, a good virtual private network (VPN) will allow users to get around this ban but these days it is unwise to presume too much.) The answer to the security threats posed by these apps is not to mimic the Chinese approach and to ban them from U.S. networks but to engage in a little self-responsibility. Be careful and protective of your data and choosy about what devices you use for different tasks. We should all work a lot harder on our digital hygiene, but then, what business is that of the U.S. federal government?

The truth is this is not about national security. The Trump administration’s bans on Bytedance and Tencent leave just enough time for these companies to sell their valuable TikTok and WeChat businesses to American companies presumably at a great discount. China has already seen this movie: it was called the Opium Wars. Microsoft is discussing a potential purchase of TikTok’s services in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand with Bytedance and set a deadline of September 15th for completing negotiations. Remarkably, President Trump has suggested that the U.S. government would only approve such a sale if it got a cut. There are no nice words to describe this sort of behavior – it is the sort of thuggish, paranoid, and corrupt approach to commerce this U.S. administration never tires of accusing others of. Canada, unfortunately, cannot do much about it – their economy is too dependent on the U.S. But the damage to America’s long-term image done by this sort of behavior is incalculable. As for China, it has little choice but to kowtow for now, but it will not forgive or forget this moment in history.

Enter Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee and, at least according to the polls, the odds-on favorite to win the presidency in November. In an interview last week with the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Biden seemed to offer a ray of hope. An NPR journalist who attended said Biden told her he would rescind all of Trump’s tariffs on China. The interview transcript itself reads a little differently. Biden absolutely criticized the Trump administration’s approach, but he went far short of saying he would immediately remove tariffs and reverse Trump policies. Biden did say the right way to deal with China was not to “poke our finger in the eye of U.S. allies” (here’s looking at you, Canada) but by assembling a global coalition to get China to “play by the international rules.” Perhaps Biden would tear up the tariffs, but more likely it would take at least a year or two of careful planning and negotiation before he could make any meaningful reverses, and even then, for a candidate who is campaigning on being tougher on China than Trump, he may find once he is in Washington that it suits his interests to keep them in place.  

(An aside: in the interview, Biden also seems to believe that any company doing business in China must have 51 percent Chinese ownership. That is not, strictly speaking, true anymore. On the off chance anyone in the Biden campaign (or any other campaign for that matter) chances to read this, we’d happily provide perspectives and facts to better and more accurately support the former Vice-President’s arguments, if he wants them.)  

Biden’s comments, however, raise a more difficult question, namely, can the U.S. really go back in time and pretend like the last four years didn’t happen? During Trump’s presidency, the U.S. has not been playing by the same international rules Biden admires so deeply. The U.S. has instead used its economic heft to put “America First” not just in its relations with China but with critical allies like Canada and South Korea. China has already decided that in response, it must develop more self-sufficiency and focus more on its domestic economy and while Beijing would likely be conciliatory towards a Biden administration in the short-term, in the long-term the CPC has already made its choice. (Also, to be fair to Mr. Trump, China might have made the same choice even without his rudimentary and destructive trade policies.) As for U.S. allies, some or at least most of the damage can be repaired, but not quickly, and not if the sole driving purpose of the U.S. is to contain China. America seems to have forgotten that for allies to remain allies, they have to get something out of the arrangement, too.

Ultimately, we think the answer is “no.” There is no going back in time. The pre-Trump, pre-U.S.-China trade war, pre-COVID-19, pre-Hong Kong world is gone. Even if Biden rescinded the tariffs and restrictions on Day 1 of his presidency, he cannot rescind the hostility, suspicion, and mistrust that has festered in the last few years, nor is he promising to. The Trump administration is behaving like a government that knows it does not have long to make irreversible facts on the ground in the U.S.-China relationship. In our view, it has already succeeded – and each successive executive order or new anti-Chinese sanction makes that even more clear. If he wins, Biden may well be able to chart a different course for U.S. foreign policy, U.S. trade relations, and the U.S.-China relationship, but we should all disabuse ourselves of the notion that this can be accomplished easily or by simply erasing Trump administration policies. It’s a long, hard, and bumpy road ahead, and as always, the collateral damage of geopolitical clashes like this will be primarily borne by the businesses caught in the crossfire and the Americans no longer able to cure their COVID-19 boredom by making funny TikTok videos.