United States President Donald Trump signed a pair of executive orders on Thursday banning US residents from doing business with Chinese companies ByteDance Ltd, owner of viral video app TikTok, and Tencent, which operates popular Chinese messenger app WeChat.
Citing national security concerns over the large amount of US user data filtered through the apps, Trump gave US firms 45 days to sever ties with ByteDance and Tencent. The two Chinese companies would also be prohibited from “any transaction … by any person, or with respect to any property subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”
Trump warned the apps may be used to spread disinformation campaigns that are politically beneficial for the Chinese Communist Party, and the United States “must take aggressive action against the owners of TikTok to protect our national security.”
He also stated that WeChat “automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users” and, in particular, the information of Chinese nationals visiting the US “thereby allowing the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.”
The executive orders were signed only one day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an expansion of the Clean Network program, which aims to prevent various “untrusted” Chinese apps and telecoms firms from procuring sensitive personal and proprietary data.
Trump issued ByteDance with an ultimatum earlier this week to either sell their US operations to an American company by September 15, or risk being banned. ByteDance is currently in talks with several companies, with Microsoft Corp. as the frontrunner to possibly purchase the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand operations of the app.
WeChat also at risk
While TikTok has amassed almost 2 billion downloads worldwide and more than 165 million times in the US, WeChat does not have the same international popularity.
It is, however, extremely common in China, with over 1 billion users, and is widely considered to be the main social messaging messaging app in a country that has banned other social media and messaging platforms, including Whatsapp and Facebook.
The US bar on this service would be detrimental to Chinese expats living abroad who use WeChat to communicate with their family and friends in their home country as well as business contacts operating between the US and China.
WeChat’s parent company Tencent has also invested in many US companies such as Tesla, Inc. and Uber Technologies, Inc.
Popular video games like PUBG Mobile and League of Legends are also operated by Tencent.
Given the long history of cooperation between the US and the companies in question, some are questioning the logic behind the suddenly hardened attitude.
The order calls TikTok a “national security threat,” said Derek Scissors, an expert on Sino-US economic relations at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.
“Either we’ve missed the threat for three years or it just became one and yet we are waiting 45 days.”
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