The TikTok Fiasco Reflects the Bankruptcy of Trump’s Foreign Policy

At first glance, the Trump Administration’s decision to ban the popular Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat had the look of hard-nosed diplomacy. China, after all, already blocks more than ten of the largest American tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, out of fear that they facilitate unmanageable levels of free speech and organization. In Washington, U.S. officials have been increasingly worried about the rise of TikTok, which is best known for its minute-long videos of people dancing, and WeChat, the vast social-media platform that allows users to text, call, pay bills, buy things, and, of course, swap videos of people dancing. Like similar apps, they collect valuable data on the viewing habits of millions of Americans and could, it is feared, allow the Chinese Communist Party to expose Americans to propaganda and censorship. Under Chinese law, authorities have broad power to intervene in the work of private companies; a spy agency, for instance, could examine the private chats of an American user, or, in theory, direct a stream of TikTok videos and advertisements that could shape the perceptions of viewers in one part of the United States.

Last month, in an unusual intervention in the operations of a business, President Trump ordered ByteDance, the Beijing-based company that owns TikTok, to find an American owner for its U.S. operations. That touched off a chaotic scramble for a sale, culminating last Saturday, when Trump abruptly announced a deal involving Walmart and Oracle, which is headed by one of his major supporters, Larry Ellison. The announcement was vague and grandiose: it heralded the creation of a new U.S.-based company, TikTok Global, which would shift ownership into American hands while creating both twenty-five thousand new jobs in the U.S. and a very ill-defined five-billion-dollar educational fund. As Trump put it, that money would be applied so that “we can educate people as to [the] real history of our country—the real history, not the fake history.” Within days, those promises were unravelling. In Beijing, TikTok’s parent company said that it would retain control over the algorithms and the code that constitute the core of its power. Analysts could discern hardly any improvements in data security or protections against propaganda, and people involved let reporters know that the education fund was a notion added, at the last minute, to assuage Trump.

All sides agreed that Oracle and Walmart would gain a stake worth twenty per cent of the new U.S.-based company, and data from American users would reside in Oracle’s cloud. But the parties agreed on little else, especially who would own what; ByteDance said that it would retain eighty per cent of TikTok, while Oracle countered that the stake would belong to ByteDance’s investors, many of whom are American. Many critics noted that Oracle, led by a Trump supporter, potentially stood to earn a huge windfall in revenue, such that, as one put it, “the very concept of the rule of law is in shambles.” Taking stock of the mess, Bill Bishop, a China analyst and the author of the Sinocism newsletter, commented, “Struggling to find the right Chinese translation for clusterf$$!”

Meanwhile, the effort to bar WeChat also has, for the moment, run into objections. On Sunday, a federal judge in California issued an injunction against regulations issued by the Commerce Department, which seeks to bar U.S. companies from offering downloads or updates for TikTok and WeChat. Free-speech advocates had raised questions about whether the ban would harm First Amendment rights. For the moment, WeChat and TikTok would remain accessible to American users, but their futures were as unclear as Trump’s purported deal. Taken together, what Trump presented as a bold expression of American values and power has turned out to be precisely the opposite: a gesture of wall-building and retreat, suffused with the aroma of potential corruption.

In a new book, “An Open World,” the foreign-policy scholars Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper begin the process of planning for a “day after Trump”—which they compare to a period of “post–natural disaster recovery”—in which the United States should focus on keeping “the international system open and free.” Lissner, an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College, told me that the threat to ban TikTok and WeChat “has put the United States on the wrong side, and set an unfavorable precedent.” There are plausible concerns, she said, that the Chinese Communist Party could use popular apps to collect data on American users, or continue to bar American companies in the name of governing the Internet according to its political anxieties. But the response should not be “replicating a C.C.P.-style approach to assertions of cyber sovereignty, as Trump has done.” Instead, she said, the U.S. should seek to be a leader in establishing rules that protect privacy and the free flow of information “regardless of the nationality of programs they’re using.” Lissner added, “Trump’s whack-a-mole approach doesn’t actually address the underlying risks, which reach far beyond TikTok and WeChat. Even worse, it makes it more likely that China’s preferred approach to Internet governance will triumph.”

The implications of this dispute extend far beyond the question of whether American teen-agers will be able to post to Chinese social-media sites. It represents what the Financial Times’ Tom Mitchell called the latest “proxy wars between the two reigning superpowers.” In contrast to America’s showdowns with the former Soviet Union, these battles are stirring not in Afghanistan and El Salvador but in corporate boardrooms. The Trump Administration opened its first front, in the spring of 2018, by banning American tech companies from selling components to ZTE, a Chinese telecom company that had been caught violating U.S. export controls on shipments to Iran. But Trump, who was eager to make a big trade deal with China, cut the pressure on ZTE, which settled with the U.S. Commerce Department. The battles have continued, though, and, as Mitchell observed, “it is China that has the early lead.”

The effort to wrest TikTok from China’s grip has been a boon for nationalist media sources in Beijing, which cited it as evidence that the U.S. is determined to prevent China from challenging American primacy. On Chinese state television last week, the news anchor Pan Tao derided the “hunt” for TikTok, asking, “Isn’t that behavior akin to a hostage situation? A deadline to sell on their terms, or else?” The opening of this “Pandora’s box,” Pan suggested, would make it impossible to trust American intentions. “If someone does this on Day One, who knows what they’re capable of doing on day fifteen?” Global Times, a nationalist state tabloid newspaper, called it a “thorough exhibit of Washington’s domineering behavior and gangster logic,” and predicted that leaders in Beijing would not ratify the agreement.

To Trump’s admirers in Washington, the move against Chinese tech companies is an act of reciprocity, an acknowledgment that China was the first to splinter the Internet into separate domains divided by a digital iron curtain. That sequence, of course, is true—but it does not follow that the right response to China’s fear is to impose additional barriers, instead of demonstrating that Americans have the capacity and the confidence to win on the strength of our competition. David Wertime, the author of the China Watcher newsletter at Politico, likened Trump’s decision to bar Americans from access to WeChat to the discomfiting new era in which America’s failure in the face of the coronavirus pandemic has left its people unwelcome at foreign borders. A U.S. passport “no longer ranks among the world’s most powerful,” he wrote. “A series of moves away from global institutions like the World Health Organization signal an inward retreat, keeping foreign elements out while also trapping Americans further within their homeland.”