Can the West curb its addiction to Chinese tech?
Calls to ban TikTok are growing ever louder in Washington, D.C. The sensational video-sharing app is in the pockets of 150 million Americans, a figure that explains, at least in part, the grilling of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew by U.S. lawmakers at a House Energy and Commerce committee hearing on March 23. Committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers said that the social media platform is a “weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations.”
While it’s true that ByteDance, TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, is beholden to Chinese law, there’s no publicly available evidence that the Chinese government itself has spied on people in the U.S. through TikTok. Last year, ByteDance was found to have tracked the IP addresses of journalists covering the company, though the employees who took part in this effort were fired soon after the news came to light.
TikTok has been under intense regulatory scrutiny since 2019, with policymakers especially concerned about where and how it stores data belonging to U.S. users. As of now, the company says, it sits in its data centers in Virginia and Singapore. However, it’s also working on “Project Texas”: a $1.5 billion plan to route all U.S. user data through the servers of the Austin-based computing giant Oracle, managed through a separate entity called TikTok U.S. Data Security.
At the hearing, Chew said this would act as a “firewall” to protect U.S. user data. But legislators appear unconvinced. Their security concerns have led to a place where U.S. sanctions on TikTok seem like a real possibility. Legal experts caution that a ban might not have legs, due to free speech protections under the First Amendment. But even if it doesn’t stand up in court, restrictions on the app could have significant ripple effects for other China-owned companies, both in the U.S. and other Western countries.
Political posturing among legislators like McMorris Rodgers make it look as though Washington is ready to ban all sorts of Chinese technology from U.S. territory. But this is easier said than done. Chinese technology has become deeply embedded in the West, whether in stand-alone products like Hikvision security cameras or in the individual parts used to make networked technologies, ranging from mobile phones to smart speakers.
The case of Huawei might offer some clues. The Chinese telecommunications infrastructure firm was effectively banned by the Trump administration in 2019 over fears of espionage. While the Shenzhen-based company was initially allowed to continue developing 5G networks in Britain, this was swiftly overturned following analysis by the U.K. government’s National Cyber Security Centre — and amid the trade war between the U.S. and China emerging at the time.
“Many in the U.K. said, ‘Don’t worry, Huawei isn’t a problem,’” explained Sam Olsen, the CEO of the Evenstar Institute, a London-based business strategy and geopolitical think tank. “But the actions of the U.S. created a business case for U.K. companies to move away from Huawei and Chinese technology more broadly.”
So far, many of the U.K.’s bans on Chinese technology have been restricted to government property: TikTok has been banned on civil servants’ work devices and government departments are barred from installing Hikvision surveillance cameras at sensitive sites.
But Olsen believes more sanctions are on the way. He cites cellular components of networked devices commonplace in the home and the office: smart thermostats, refrigerators and connected security systems, often referred to as the Internet of Things, some of which capture copious amounts of user data by design. Key parts of these products are made in China by companies like Quectel and Fibocom. Most have geolocation capabilities. “By their nature, these devices contain sensitive data: a car that’s parked outside a government location could potentially reveal an agent’s identity and behavioral patterns,” he said.
Chinese technologies that can track cross-border metrics are in the firing line, too. China’s dominance in global trade means it possesses immense logistics data. For example, LOGINK, a Chinese transport and logistics platform, links shippers internationally on a closed platform. “The software is integrated into China’s 93 ports in 53 countries, meaning it has access to the visibility of global supply chains,” said Olsen. “From a national security angle, China could divert sensitive cargo thanks to the platform’s data.”
Likewise, Beijing-based Nuctech builds security scanning technology used at EU borders and major international sporting events. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration banned the equipment in American airports in 2014, but most Western allies are yet to follow. “The technology is scanning everything going in and out of Europe, giving China huge data to work from,” said Olsen.
According to Olsen, cheap manufacturing and a market of 1.5 billion people meant it initially made business and political sense for Western allies to cozy up to China. However, he says, there has been a collective naivete regarding China’s longer-term goals, which “never wanted to settle as a bit player in a Western feudal system.”
Now, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the “wolf warrior diplomacy” style of figures like Zhao Lijian, an ex-foreign ministry spokesman, is on full display: coercion, confrontation and conflict as China asserts its status as a true global superpower. After decades of investment in Chinese technology for its high quality and cheap price, some political forces in Western nations want to backtrack. But this may force them to choose between market pressures and national security interests.
“U.K. government enthusiasm for Chinese investment and trade partnerships has, for 20 years, rubbed up against cybersecurity concerns,” said Tim Stevens, a reader in global security at King’s College London. “But now, the cybersecurity aspects of Chinese state-firm relations are too serious for any government or firm to ignore: There are few, if any, restrictions on what data the Chinese government can obtain from ‘private’ companies, and no independent oversight of those relationships.”
While sanctions on Chinese technology ramp up, a complete disentanglement is unlikely, if not impossible. Chinese tech isn’t only embedded in Western devices — but in its economies, too. Olsen says one way of easing reliance on China is the Biden administration’s CHIPS and Science Act: the $280 billion investment to boost semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. “If that ran its course, the U.S. would be able to export to its allies, gain self-sufficiency and encourage the likes of Apple to diversify its tech away from China.”
It’s unclear if we’re entering another Cold War, says Richard Harknett, a professor of political science and the director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Cincinnati. However, the nature of technology and cybersecurity mean the devices we all use can be leveraged by global superpowers in the name of espionage: digital frontlines in which a live shot is never fired. “Unauthorized data collection, data manipulation and manipulating computer networks are the ways superpowers are trying to gain advantages against each other,” Harknett said. “We’re in a new phase of strategic competition across all countries. Cyberspace is allowing states to use digital means to undermine each other’s economies, militaries and trust in government.”
Through that lens, for the National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone to compare TikTok to a “loaded gun” makes sense from a U.S. geopolitical perspective. Olsen, however, says the platform has become more of a totem for the current freezing of U.S.-China relations. “It’s a symbol of Chinese data and influence in the West,” he said.
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