The paradox of privacy is more obvious than ever. Ask anyone whether they value their privacy and the odds are that they do. Yet most of our online behaviors suggest otherwise. The age of social media has brought extraordinary amounts of information and entertainment to our fingertips at the expense of our personal freedoms. While recent controversies around ByteDance’s TikTok have dominated headlines, companies such as Facebook and Google have privacy issues of their own. We should take heart, however, in the fact that democratic institutions can hold corporations accountable for their actions. Legislation can prescribe guidelines on what firms cannot do with user data. Antitrust regulations can be enforced. This is not the case in China, however. In light of this, the U.S. government has sought to ban TikTok.
This move does not come in isolation; the world’s economic decoupling from China has been years in the making. Australia and China are headed toward a trade war, stemming from Australia’s vocal efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19. India has banned hundreds of Chinese apps, even as the two nations remain locked in months-long border tensions over Chinese intrusions on Indian territory. India has also massively curbed Chinese investment into its economy. Germany has called for a united front against China in what it terms a “new Cold War.” Given these instances, the Trump administration’s move to ban these apps and take an increasingly hostile stance is not only justified, but obligatory.
China is no communist state. But neither is it capitalist. The basic tenets of capitalism champion a free market with minimal government intervention. While the regime of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) breaks from the traditional definition of state-sponsored economics, they practice a hybrid Maoist-capitalist model, wherein most private enterprises, particularly medium-sized ones, are required to include a “Party Committee” in their organizational structure. Representatives from the CCP are present on the board of directors or exist as an independent supervising entity within each company. In essence, any firm, Chinese or foreign, operating in China, must privy the Party to its decision-making process. The notion that private enterprise and the state can remain separate in China, therefore, is laughable. Thus, while TikTok may deny that it is influenced by the CCP, it is subject to the same draconian laws – such as Hong Kong’s new national security law – that make a mockery of privacy rights and civil liberties.
Privacy, however, is not the only thing at stake here. TikTok has been mired in controversy for numerous reasons. ByteDance has been linked to the systematic oppression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, where the CCP has subjugated ethnic minorities to an Orwellian police state and torture and genocide in concentration camps. TikTok is also known to censor videos and suspend users for discussing sensitive topics or those offensive to the CCP’s hegemony, including Tibet, Xinjiang, the Tiananmen massacre and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The criticism against the decision to ban TikTok, hence, is not only unwarranted, but incredibly naive. At the turn of the millennium, former President Bill Clinton had successfully lobbied for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). When asked about his decision, Clinton had claimed, “By joining the WTO, China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products, it is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values, economic freedom.”
Such hopes of economic and social liberalization have not only proven futile, but have also returned to haunt the U.S. two decades later, as the WTO ruled against tariffs on Chinese goods. Ironically, American companies, including Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Wikipedia, among many others, are already prohibited in China as part of the “Great Firewall.” The WTO, in this absurd ruling, displayed its own hypocrisy, as foreign companies face harsh restrictions and unbalanced playing fields within the Chinese market. The continuing prosperity of Chinese companies overseas should be a slap in the face to any capitalist as China flouts the WTO’s own principles of free and fair trade, transparency, and promotion of fair competition.
While many of President Donald Trump’s policies, particularly those concerning COVID-19 and racial injustice, have earned him well-deserved condemnation, this should be the rare exception. Your thoughts on his administration notwithstanding, it is in America’s and the world’s best interests to wake up and begin a rapid decoupling from China. While this may be detrimental to Americans in the short run, in the long run, it is paramount to rid ourselves of the CCP’s duplicity. While Trump has his issues, he seems to be held in higher regard in Asia as compared to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who is viewed with skepticism due to the failings of the Obama-Biden era foreign policies that led to China’s ascendance.
The good old days are behind us. The U.S. cannot purport to uphold peace and fairness in the world if it sticks to an antiquated foreign policy better suited to a different millennium.
Aayush Gupta (22B) is from Singapore.