China and US flags can be seen near a TikTok logo in this illustrative image taken on July 16, 2020.
Florence Lo | Reuters
BEIJING — China says it would “strongly oppose” a forced sale of TikTok, highlighting the government’s involvement in the social media giant, which is trying hard to distance itself from authorities in Beijing.
The Commerce Ministry said on Thursday that TikTok was in the process of being sold or spun off from its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance Chinese Technology Exports Law — Requiring export permits for certain technologies due to national security concerns. ByteDance also owns Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, which is popular in the country.
“The Chinese government would make a lawful decision,” spokesman Shu Jueting said in Chinese, translated by Reported Medias.
Shu was speaking at the ministry’s weekly press conference, hours before TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before a US House of Representatives committee.
Lawmakers questioned Chew for more than five hoursand wanted clarity on TikTok’s ability to operate independently of Chinese influences on its parent company.
ByteDance did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Chinese Ministry of Commerce’s remarks.
The poll did not appear to exonerate US lawmakers.
“At the end of the day, it was clear from the statement that Mr. Chew reports to the CEO of ByteDance. ByteDance controls TikTok,” Cameron Kelly, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Reported Medias.Squawk Box Asia“Friday. Kelly was General Counsel at the US Department of Commerce from 2009 to 2013.
Kelly said the evidence that ByteDance has legal control over TikTok reinforces US lawmakers’ doubts about how well the app can demonstrate its independence through restructuring.
TikTok has a “Project Texas” plan to store American user data on US soil — to prove the company’s claims that mainland China authorities have no access to it.
Beijing … now doubly dares Congress and the administration to ‘save my day’.
Asia Society Policy Institute
“I don’t see a closure as a ban or a full divestment [of TikTok] is needed. But I think you need to separate that legal control,” Kelly said, noting that this could be done through a trust structure.
But the Commerce Department’s claim for control of a TikTok sale or spin-off suggests Beijing wants to be involved.
“The Chinese government’s public statement to block sales of TikTok in the US has little to do with protecting Chinese algorithms and technology and much to give Washington a taste of its own medicine,” said Daniel Russel, vice president of International Security and Diplomacy, Asia Society Policy Institute said in a statement.
“Beijing after I heard it [U.S. Commerce] Secretary Raymond’s complaint that banning TikTok would upset voters under 35 is now doubly bold for Congress and the government to ‘save my day,'” Russel said.
The US has tightened restrictions on American companies and individuals working with Chinese companies on critical technology for high-end semiconductors.
When asked about the Commerce Department’s comments Thursday, TikTok’s CEO said the app is not available in mainland China and is based in Los Angeles. But he said the company used the expertise of some of ByteDance’s Chinese employees for “engineering projects”.
Chew also told US lawmakers that China-based employees were employed by its parent company ByteDance may still have access to some US databut that new data will stop flowing once the company completes its plan for the Texas project.
Official Chinese commentators have previously emphasized this China-based companies should comply with local laws and regulations when doing business abroad.
It’s not immediately clear how China’s export control law, enacted in December 2020, could apply to TikTok.
Different types of exports are managed by different governmental organizations, “each of which has a separate regulatory system,” the EU Chamber of Commerce in China said in its latest position paper. It called for more clarity about the roles of the various bodies involved in the implementation of the export control law.
What’s next for TikTok?
The US and China have increasingly invoked national security as a reason for controlling technology.
“To be fair, there really are real national security risks involved [TikTok] — and that’s one reason banning the app from government phones and military phones makes sense,” said Glenn Gerstell, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Reported Medias.Street Signs Asia“Friday. Gerstell served as General Counsel of the National Security Agency from 2015 to 2020.
“As for the general public, I don’t see any strategic value in China in understanding what a teenager’s dance moves are in Minneapolis. So the general public ban makes no sense,” he said.
TikTok has more than 150 million users in the US — or about half the country’s population.
It’s unclear whether the US will ultimately force ByteDance to sell TikTok or ban use of the app in the country. The hugely popular app is already banned from federal government devices.
“We see a 3-6 month timeframe for ByteDance and TikTok to work out a sale to a US tech player with a less likely and extremely complex spin-off,” said Dan Ives, analyst at Wedbush Securities, in a note.
“If ByteDance fights this forced sale, TikTok will likely be banned in the US by the end of 2023.”
— Reported Medias’s Lauren Feiner contributed to this report.