Russia and Global Security Risks
Trump’s TikTok Ban: US-China Escalation Goes Digital

The current US Administration is hardly interested in the intricacies of soft power. Relations with China in the rhetoric of American officialdom have moved into the category of a struggle between good and evil, freedom and slavery, democracy and dictatorship, liberalism and communism, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Ivan Timofeev

In relations between the United States and China, we see the next steps towards escalation. The key reasons are America’s criticism of the PRC’s policy towards Hong Kong, as well as Washington’s policy of applying intense pressure on Chinese telecommunications companies.

On August 7 of this year, the US Treasury Department included 11 high-ranking Chinese officials in key positions in the Hong Kong administration in its SDN list. The decision was made on the basis of Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13936, dated July 14, 2020, as well as in the development of the Human Rights and Democracy Act in Hong Kong 2019 and the Hong Kong Autonomy Act 2020.

Inclusion in the SDN list entails the freezing of their US assets and that US citizens (and entities) are prohibited from engaging in any transactions with individuals in the list. In practice, this means that the PRC citizens who were included in the SDN list will be largely deprived of banking services, and also lose the opportunity to make use of the services of multinational companies. All such companies fear secondary sanctions and fines from the US authorities. Naturally, in the PRC, there is the possibility to make use of internal banking, aside from global banks (Chinese banks operating in the global market are still extremely careful about the US sanctions regimes). China is a large and, in many areas, a fairly autonomous power, capable of providing its citizens with access to banking and any other market services.

However, most people from the management and business elite have been actively involved in globalisation for as many as 30 years, and such measures will present psychological discomfort. In fact, the Americans are labelling them. Now Amazon services are not available to them, they will not be able to use YouTube, Apple and many other services from which the modern, globalised consumer is used to being able to freely choose. This is bad news, especially for the Americans themselves. With their own hands, they are destroying the instruments of their influence and “soft power” in China. American politicians and media portray the Chinese elite as morose communist dictators. In fact, it is a modern and professional community, quite closely integrated into global information, economic, and educational networks. But at the same time, it has the ability, if necessary, to work independently of global networks in almost any field and actively promote national interests. By pushing the Chinese elite (and with it, businesses “connected to the Communist Party”) from the global space, the Americans are diluting their influence over China.

However, the current US Administration is hardly interested in the intricacies of soft power. Relations with China in the rhetoric of American officialdom have moved into the category of a struggle between good and evil, freedom and slavery, democracy and dictatorship, liberalism and communism. The voices of those who really work with China and doubt the need for radicalisation (even if there are problems) will be drowned in the ideological stream. “These are crazy tales,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said when describing such voices in a recent interview. In the same interview, China is accused of the “deep development” of American business leaders, congressmen and representatives of local authorities, as well as operations to exert influence in the United States in order to undermine democracy and create risks for the American nation.

Another major development is the ban on the use of Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok in the US. Earlier it was a question of a possible purchase by the Americans of Chinese services. However, the deals did not materialise. President Donald Trump issued two executive orders at once, amending Executive Order 13873 of May 15, 2019. Decree 13873 introduced a state of emergency in connection with threats to US national security in the telecommunications sector. US law empowers the president to use economic and financial sanctions to address security threats that have become the subject of a state of emergency. Executive order 13873 has already provided a legal platform for a range of trade restrictions against Chinese telecommunications companies through the US Department of Commerce. It is noteworthy that the bans on WeChat and TikTok were implemented by the president directly through separate decrees, and not through decisions of the executive branch. This speaks of the high status of the decisions being made – the US President took all the responsibility personally.

The White House used the following arguments to justify the bans on the Chinese services. Both services have a global reach and a significant number of American users. They allow you to collect information about users, their location and activity on social networks and the Internet. This information can be used for the purpose of blackmail, espionage, censorship, disinformation (including on COVID-19) and other hostile actions. The White House release does not provide examples of such actions on the part of the PRC. The Americans simply assume that Chinese business is transmitting information to the Chinese Communist Party. Interestingly, the Communist Party is positioned as a threat in a large number of US documents on China. This adds ideological noise, but is inherently flawed and misleading. The Chinese state system is much more complex. To merely reduce it to the Communist Party (despite its importance) would be a big mistake.

However, it should be noted that in China itself, a number of American Internet services (such as Google and Facebook) have been banned for a long time. For a long time, the question was, will the Chinese course towards Internet sovereignty become a global trend? The actions of the American authorities provide grounds for this question to be answered in the affirmative. A “Multipolar Internet” is waiting for us in the near future.

It is hard to deny that there are real difficulties in relations between the United States and China, including in the field of telecommunications. It would be a mistake to say that the US authorities are inventing problems and pulling them out of thin air. The sensitivity of information, the vulnerability of property rights, and mutual industrial espionage are the features of the new digital age. But they can only be resolved or mitigated through dialogue. Cavalry attacks under outdated ideological slogans, as well as a simplified and sometimes even primitive view of China, are unlikely to increase the security of the United States. They will only make problems worse.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.