Thu 02 February 2023:
Written over 2,000 years ago, Chinese general and strategist Sun Tzu stated in The Art of War that “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” This ancient maxim still rings true today and is arguably being put into practise by present-day China.
Beijing has been excelling in economic warfare in recent decades, having surpassed the US as the world’s major trading partner. This combined strategy of expanding political influence and share of global trade has been most visible in resource-rich Africa, which is increasingly falling into China’s indirect control due to considerable investment and loans in the continent.
This “Sino-imperialism” has been achieved without military interventions or overtly undermining the sovereignty of other states, a departure from the methods used by previous superpowers like the US and Soviet Union. Instead, the multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which includes six major economic corridors accounting for 40 per cent of global GDP and 65 per cent of the world’s population, is the crowning achievement in connecting China with the rest of the world through trade and development.
Technology is another area China is utilising to realise its objectives. This digital diplomacy is being used to develop both soft and hard power through the control of information and communications technology (ICT). However, the most controversial aspect of this has been the worldwide popularity of the social media platform TikTok which has faced bans and censorship in a number of countries, including the US, India and many others in the MENA region over its perceived negative impact on society and growing concerns over national security.
Just last month Jordan banned the short-video sharing app amid protests over rising fuel costs, over accusations that the platform was being misused “to promote videos falsifying current events”. The Egyptian Senate is also preparing to discuss banning TikTok following several lawsuits being filed calling for the motion. Promotion of violence, pornography and bullying among the youth are among the accusations made, in addition to it being an alleged outlet for drug trafficking and illicit currency trading.
Yet for the US, the political and security issues surrounding the Chinese-owned app are more pressing. So much so that President Joe Biden approved the banning of TikTok on government devices late last month while many public universities across the country have already prohibited the social media platform. The move by the White House follows mounting pressure for the US government to take action over growing concerns that the app owned by Chinese firm Bytedance could be used for espionage — a tactic which is espoused by Sun Tzu. By doing so, Biden is effectively reversing his own decision in 2021 to revoke bans on TikTok and other Chinese apps imposed by his Sino-skeptic predecessor, Donald Trump.
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The CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, is also to testify before Congress on 23 March regarding “consumer privacy and data security practices, the platforms’ impact on kids, and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” according to a press release on Monday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“ByteDance-owned TikTok has knowingly allowed the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to access American user data,” committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. A charge that has been denied by the company which insists that “The Chinese Communist Party has neither direct nor indirect control of ByteDance or TikTok.”
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Nevertheless, there are lingering fears that data is being “routinely transferred to China,” as expressed in a letter last year by senior Tory MPs, having successfully campaigned to have the UK Parliament account closed down over “data security risks associated with the app”. If found to be true, this could be another testament to The Art of War which mentions “He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk.”
Aside from the obvious controversies relating to national security and data protection, another dimension to China’s strategic use of TikTok alludes to a more societal, if not civilisational, challenge posed by the app. China as a civilisation-state is more adept in longer-term planning compared to western, democratic nation-states who change leaders every few years.
It is widely known that there are dual versions of the platform, TikTok for global consumption and the domestic, government-censored Chinese equivalent, Douyin. There is also a noticeable disparity in terms of algorithm-driven content on two apps. Several observations have been made how the Chinese version promotes moral, uplifting and positive content for its mostly-young users, in contrast to what the rest of the world’s children are exposed to, which includes promoting lip-synching, dancing and “challenges“, some of which have proven dangerous if not fatal. The Chinese version also has a “Youth Mode”, whereby children under the age of 14 are limited to using the app to 40 minutes a day between the hours of 6am and 10pm.
US podcaster Joe Rogan for example has previously noted how Douyin was “better” than the US version: “China’s version of TikTok celebrates academic achievements and athletic achievements. It’s all science projects. All these different fascinating things.”
In contrast, he noted how in the US “Kids are f**king dancing. They’re screaming about veganism and how blue their hair is. It’s wild.”
In November last year, in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes”, a technology ethicist and former Google employee said: “It’s almost like they recognize that technology is influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.”
A podcast last year by Crowder and Crew also argued that TikTok is designed to shaping people, particularly the next generation, by rewarding stupidity, while US comedian Andrew Shulz in a viral clip mentioned “If you’re China and you wanted to disrupt another country, wouldn’t you reward the dumbest possible sh*t on that app?”
He added: “You want the next level of youth to go ‘I can be famous doing something that is worthless to society.'”
This may well not just be down to the exploitation of algorithms or China’s alleged ulterior motives in keeping the societies and youth of its rivals down, but due to a difference in contemporary cultural attitudes. In 2019, a survey carried out by toy firm Lego polling children from the US, UK and China found that most children from the US and UK wanted to be social media influencers when they grow up, while their Chinese counterparts mostly aspired to become astronauts.
However, the fact that several states have banned the app and have effectively securitised it, like the US and India have done, suggests that TikTok isn’t as innocuous as it may initially seem and may well be part of a wider information warfare campaign, the results of which are measured in decades and the consequences we are yet to see. By potentially collecting vast amounts of data and influencing public opinion, TikTok provides China with a novel and effective way to advance its interests in clear alignment with the oldest military treatise in the world.
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