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Interview: TikTok, with James Andrew Lewis

The Hundred

James Andrew Lewis, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

EnergiesNet.com 03 29 2024

How many Americans use TikTok?

Roughly 100 million American use TikTok regularly. More importantly, survey data shows that 30% of these Americans use TikTok as their source of news.

The US House of Representatives just passed a bill on TikTok. What does it do?

The Bill would, if it becomes law, force TikTok to sell itself or stop operations in the US. The Bill’s sponsors hope this will pressure TikTok to sell.

What are the arguments in favour of the legislation?

The chief argument for the bill, and the reason it passed with a large majority, is that no one trusts China. China has mounted a massive espionage campaign against the US and its allies and uses digital technologies and internet access as a key part of this campaign. The sponsors also worry about Chinese propaganda and influence campaigns, but this is not really a threat. China does collect personal information on its citizens and others, and the bill seeks to stop that, but so far as we know, the Chinese have not used it for any purpose.

Are any of them reasonable?

As you can see from this survey of Chinese espionage activity, they’re very active. TikTok may only be the start of a larger effort against Chinese software. Every developed country should worry about Chinese espionage. Influence campaigns are less effective, since there are very few people outside of China who want to hear about “Xi Jinping Thought”.

Why is this happening now?

The battle over TikTok actually goes back to 2017, when the previous administration tried to ban it. This is just the latest chapter in a long-running drama that started when the US realized that Chinese actions were becoming intolerable after Xi Jinping announced he intended to make China globally dominant.

Would the Chinese government agree to a sale of TikTok?

The Chinese government loves TikTok. It is China’s only globally successful social media app. But if the price was right and it wasn’t embarrassing, they might agree to a sale. TikTok’s owners and investors would like to sell, but this in no longer just a business deal.

Are there any realistic alternatives to a sale?

No. TikTok proposed something called “Project Texas” to mitigate the risk, but it would have had TikTok policing itself. The fundamental problem is Chinese government influence and control, and any solution has to address that.

What’s a question you wish you were asked and what’s your answer to it?

How do western nations deal with an assertive China that disregards global norms for business?

TikTok operates freely in the US, but Facebook and Google are banned in China. How do we apply and enforce reciprocity (a word the Chinese hate)?


James Lewis is Pritzker Chair and Director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Before joining CSIS, he was a diplomat and a member of the Senior Executive Service. Our questions are in bold, his answers in block quotes.

thehundred 03 29 2024

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