Trump bans dealings with Chinese owners of TikTok, WeChat

US president says TikTok may be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party.

TikTok logo with Chinese, US flags [Bloomberg]
Order comes amid intense pressure from Trump administration on TikTok's owner ByteDance to sell the app to a US firm [File: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg]

US President Donald Trump has issued an executive order banning any transactions with the Chinese owners of the apps TikTok and WeChat, starting in 45 days. 

The orders on Thursday came as the Trump administration said it was stepping up efforts to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from US digital networks and called the Chinese-owned short-video app TikTok and messenger app WeChat “significant threats”.

The TikTok app, owned by ByteDance, may be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, and the US “must take aggressive action against the owners of TikTok to protect our national security”, Trump said in one order.

In the other, the US president said WeChat, owned by China’s Tencent, “automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users” and that this data collection “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information”. 

The moves come as Washington and Beijing clash on an array of issues, ranging from the novel coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, to the US’s support for Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory. 

TikTok said on Friday it was “shocked” by the move and it could go to US courts to ensure it was treated fairly.

“We will pursue all remedies available to us in order to ensure that the rule of law is not discarded and that our company and our users are treated fairly – if not by the [Trump] Administration, then by the US courts,” TikTok said on its website.

China accused the United States of “arbitrary political manipulation and suppression” after Trump ordered the sweeping restrictions.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular press briefing the US move came at the expense of American users and companies.

Earlier this week, Trump said he would support the sale of TikTok’s US operations to Microsoft Corp if the US government got a “substantial portion” of the sales price but warned he will ban the service in the US on September 15.

The app has come under fire from US legislators and the Trump administration over national security concerns because China’s ByteDance owns the technology. They claim the Chinese government could access US user data as a consequence of TikTok’s ownership by ByteDance.

TikTok has repeatedly denied the claims.

Microsoft is currently in talks with ByteDance to buy TikTok operations in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and the Financial Times earlier on Thursday reported the US tech giant is now chasing a deal to buy all of the app’s global business.

Jim Anderson, CEO of social media marketing firm Social Flow, said Trump’s decision to ban TikTok and WeChat was rooted in the distrust between the world’s biggest economies.

“TikTok has gone to great lengths to try to assure people that the Chinese government has never requested that TikTok provide information of users, certainly not on US citizens,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The real concern is that the fact they haven’t done that yet doesn’t mean they won’t do so in the future. If the application is owned by a Chinese company, they really aren’t going to be able to refuse a request like that from the Chinese government. Combine that with the escalating tensions that’s been going on between the US and China the trade front and others leads us to where we are now.”

Anderson said while Microsoft’s reported bid to buy TikTok’s global operations “made a lot of sense”, there were many challenges ahead.

“Microsoft is a big enough company to be able to fund that kind of acquisition globally. The question is whether ByteDance would want to slice off the US markets and some others globally, and that obviously presents tremendous technical challenges and there’s no way that could happen in the next 45 days.”

Meanwhile, the US Senate on Thursday unanimously voted to approve a bill from Senator Josh Hawley banning federal employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies