U.S. leaders have effectively kicked huawei and a number of Chinese technology monitoring companies out of the country, warning that installing chinese-made products in sensitive parts of the nation's electronic infrastructure poses a serious threat to national security and privacy.
Now they are turning their worried attention to a new Chinese target: teenagers who sing and dance on TikTok.
The New York times and other media reported last week that a secret federal commission focused on national security was reviewing TikTok's acquisition two years ago by a Chinese company called bytedance. Three senators have called on the trump administration to review potential national security and privacy threats posed by the app, warning that bytedance could remove content deemed objectionable to the communist party, such as video, which supports pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
TikTok denies censoring political content. The app can be found supporting protesters and declaring "restore Hong Kong!" In the video.
But TikTok -- which probably has the app on her phone if you're the parent of a teenager -- is gaining traction in a region where it hasn't been before. Its unexpected rise is forcing americans to consider for the first time living in a world influenced by chinese-backed social media networks.
This has led the public to take a closer look at bytedance. It is not a branch of the communist party. Its success, however, owes much to its ability to navigate Beijing's political terrain and its knack for providing superficial entertainment that does not touch censorship.
Indeed, zhang yiming, the company's founder, has echoed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's assertion that he runs a technology company, not a media company. But that hasn't stopped Facebook from influencing events around the world, with far-reaching and disturbing consequences.
No Chinese technology company has been as successful on the global Internet as bytedance. Except among overseas Chinese, China's burgeoning social media platforms and wildly popular video apps have little impact elsewhere. At a time when some in Washington are trying to unravel the close economic ties between the United States and China, the two countries already live in separate worlds in cyberspace.
Yet even as the iron curtain of technology closed, TikTok emerged on the global Internet stage. TikTok has been downloaded nearly 1.5 billion times globally and 122 million times in the United States, according to data firm Sensor Tower.
That makes some in Washington uneasy. In letters to us intelligence officials, senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton said the TikTok platform was "a potential target for foreign influence activities, like those conducted on us-based social media platforms during the 2016 election".
这让华盛顿的一些人感到不安。在写给美国情报官员的信中，参议员查克·舒默(Chuck Schumer)和汤姆·科顿(Tom Cotton)表示，TikTok平台是“外国影响力活动的潜在目标，就像2016年大选期间在基于美国的社交媒体平台上实施的那些活动一样”。
They and others pointed to recent articles claiming or suggesting that TikTok would delete the video of the Hong Kong protests.
TikTok has rejected the allegations, saying it stores data on us users locally and "will not delete content on sensitive issues related to China".
The Chinese government has never asked us to remove any content, and if asked, we will not listen, the statement said. "That's it."
The statement did not include extensive government pressure on domestic media companies. Chinese officials don't typically delete content directly, but instead set broad guidelines for media companies and let them censor themselves.
TikTok sometimes avoids uncomfortable topics altogether. When the app is downloaded in Hong Kong, its user guidelines prohibit politically relevant content and comments.
After The Times raised questions, TikTok updated the guidelines, saying they should have been removed in May but reappeared due to errors. TikTok said its Hong Kong content review team was based partly in mainland China but was moving to Hong Kong and would follow the same rules the company had set elsewhere.
Even so, TikTok's critics have failed to produce evidence that Beijing is using TikTok to promote political propaganda to young people or to abuse user data. That may not help its prospects in the U.S. market: the U.S. government has never produced evidence that huawei's equipment poses a security threat, but its equipment is still largely out of the telecom network.
Zuckerberg's company is busy copying TikTok, arguing that the chinese-owned app represents a competition of values.
Until recently, the Internet in almost every country except China has been defined by American platforms with strong values of free speech, he said in a recent Georgetown University speech, referring specifically to TikTok.
Of course, his company has tried to develop software that allows potential Chinese partners to block content they don't like. But the comments touch on a broader truth: in order to do business on the Chinese Internet, any Chinese company must obey the government's will, whether it wants to or not.
Bytedance is no exception. Zhang yiming, 29, founded the company in 2012. As a programmer geek, zhang yiming said that the day he received the tetris handheld game console in second grade was the happiest day of his life. In college, he was famous for his skills in repairing computers.
Some Chinese have compared him to zuckerberg. Like the Facebook boss, Mr. Zhang has said that machines are better at spreading content than people. Bytedance launched toutiao, a popular news aggregation app in China that replaced its chief editor with software. In most cases, it gives users a headline based on what they clicked on earlier.
I can't accurately judge whether it's good or bad, elegant or vulgar, zhang yiming told a Chinese business magazine in 2016. "I may have my judgment, but I don't want to impose my judgment on the headlines."
For many users, the system provides a steady stream of content based on what they've clicked on before: bikini photos, funny video, pet memes. Opposition soon emerged.
Zhang yiming and his engineers are at the same time taming the machine to make it understand your heart better, wrote the blogger he jiayan. "Train you at the same time, make you more addicted to it."
TikTok and other bytedance apps have time management features that allow users and parents to set limits of 40, 60 or 120 minutes, a TikTok spokesman said.
This algorithmically driven approach works well for bytedance. By the end of 2016, toutiao was the second-largest app in China, behind instant messaging app WeChat, in terms of how much time users spent on it each day, according to QuestMobile, a Chinese data company. Last year, the company raised a new round of funding from investors including SoftBank that valued it at $75 billion, making it one of the world's most valuable start-ups.
Toutiao also attracted the attention of lu wei, a high-ranking official who ruled China's Internet with an iron fist at the time, some industry executives said. When other Internet companies complained about headlines stealing their content, one of Mr. Lu's top aides told them that he liked headlines and that they should stop complaining and work with them. The executives spoke on the condition of anonymity because publicly discussing the work of China's censors would amount to corporate suicide.
Bytedance denies it has a relationship with or benefited from Mr. Lu. Lu wei resigned in mid-2016 and was sentenced to 14 years in prison this year for corruption.
Since then, the company has also run into trouble with censors. Bytedance and other star start-ups were punished in April 2018 for running "unhealthy" content. The company was ordered to shut down an app called "inside jokes" because of its vulgar jokes and video.
Mr. Zhang apologized, saying in a letter that he took responsibility for content that didn't conform to 'core socialist values.' He vowed to strengthen bytedance's party-building efforts and announced plans to strengthen the role of chief editor and expand its content review team from 6,000 to 10,000. Like other online media outlets, toutiao has begun to top stories about Chinese leader xi jinping.
His apology seems to have worked. Less than two weeks later, he delivered the keynote address at a technology conference hosted by the Internet regulator: bytedance's global expansion strategy.