Does TikTok project Chinese soft power?
As TikTok use climbs during the coronavirus pandemic, experts say the app isn't effective at expanding China’s cultural influence
Your average, not-so-hip adult would have probably drawn a blank at the mention of TikTok not long ago – unless they have a child addicted to the wildly popular app, on which users make and share short, amusing videos.
It has grown explosively since its 2016 launch, with 800 million monthly active users now – 300 million of them outside China in places such as India (120 million) and the United States (37 million). And many have no idea it is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance.
The first Chinese app to mount a real global challenge to Facebook and Instagram, it is seen as one of the shiniest new weapons in the US-China technology war. And a boost, perhaps, to Chinese soft power.
It experienced a growth spurt in 2019 that analysts predicted would slow a little this year. That, however, was before the coronavirus, which seems to be giving the app a bump, especially beyond its core teenage fan base.
As pandemic fears rise and millions are stuck indoors, major Hollywood celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, 50, have taken to posting their own all-singing, all-dancing videos, which then go viral on other media platforms.
Even the World Health Organisation has jumped on the bandwagon, joining the app in late February to share public health advice.
But to some, the growth of TikTok is far from benign.
Privacy advocates and several US congressmen want to rein in the app over concerns it may censor and monitor content for the Chinese government, and be used for misinformation and election interference. This despite the fact that TikTok keeps its servers outside China and swears it will not hand over user data.
Are these fears justified – or fueled by political and anticompetitive motives?
Thinkers such as Yuval Noah Harari warn that the coronavirus pandemic could be a watershed in the history of mass surveillance.
But Eric Harwit, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii, does not buy such arguments against TikTok, especially given that 60% of its US users are aged 16 to 24.
“ByteDance has done a pretty good job of having a firewall between TikTok and the Chinese version of it, Douyin.
“Also, many users in the US are teens and they’re not a particularly useful source of national security information.
“So I’d say the concerns are motivated more by a general fear of any kind of Chinese telecommunication application rather than actual attempts to siphon off valuable US intelligence information.
“And Facebook and other American companies have similar products,” Harwit points out. “US government officials will always want to protect American commercial interests.”
Sarah Cook, a China analyst for Freedom House – the US government-funded think tank – disagrees.
“We have concerns about how Facebook and Twitter deal with information affecting electoral politics, and that’s magnified if you’re talking about a Chinese company that now has a user base that rivals theirs.”
Chinese officials, she argues, have shown a willingness to censor and manipulate information well beyond their country’s borders – for instance, regarding the scale of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, an obfuscation that may have exacerbated its impact abroad.
“For those who think Chinese government censorship is only Chinese people’s problem, this pandemic shows how much that’s not the case.
“And even if it’s not happening right now with TikTok, the concern is that Chinese companies are beholden to their government, whether they want to be or not.
“I’m not saying block TikTok entirely,” she says. “It’s a question of looking at it in a democratic system and deciding on reasonable oversight and safeguards to protect users and information flows when that time comes.”
When it comes to expanding China’s cultural influence, though, neither Cook nor Harwit believes the app is especially effective.
Most people are oblivious to its Chinese origins, which the user experience does not reflect in any way. So there is no goodwill-generating soft power of the sort wielded by, say, South Korea through the K-pop industry.
If anything, TikTok often promotes the increasingly homogenous, Western-leaning culture seen on many globally popular social media apps.
So says Morten Bay, a lecturer in digital and social media at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“A semi-Western culture, with small variations of local culture, is becoming the norm on social media. And Chinese soft power is difficult to assert because there’s no value difference.”
And even if Chinese tech companies keep taking bigger bites of the Western market, he is sceptical of China’s “ability to leverage that for soft power in a geopolitical sense”.
“Because there is a very big apparatus pushing against China in that regard. As soon as TikTok started gaining traction in the US, people came out against it, trying to make everyone aware of the privacy and geopolitical issues.
“So China faces a lot of resistance,” Bay concludes. “And I’m not sure a social media platform on its own can do much about that.”
Still, if you had to back a horse in this race, TikTok would be it, says Zhang Mengmeng.
When she and her colleagues from global industry analysis firm Counterpoint Research visited the company, they were impressed by its research and development capabilities.
“Because they’re a very young company, their pace for incubating new projects is a lot faster, especially compared to successful but older internet companies in China which have been around for 15 to 20 years.
“They have lots of little start-up projects within the company and their organisational structure is very flat – it doesn’t matter what your age is, if you have a good idea, you get promoted very quickly.”
TikTok’s rise is also emblematic of a broader role reversal in the US-China tech war, she believes.
“Before, the US was more advanced in terms of internet development and China seemed to just copy its new ideas. Now, this is reversing. There are so many people in China using the internet that start-ups there can test ideas very easily.
“So now it seems like a lot of US companies are trying to see what ideas are coming out of China.”