(Headline USA) President Donald Trump has ordered a sweeping but vague ban on dealings with the Chinese owners of social media apps TikTok and WeChat on security grounds, a move China’s government criticized as “political manipulation.”
The twin executive orders issued Thursday — one for each app — add to growing U.S.-Chinese conflict over technology and security. They take effect in 45 days and could bar the popular apps from the Apple and Google app stores, effectively removing them from U.S. distribution.
The Epoch Times reported on Friday that more than 130 employees of ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, are part of the Chinese Communist Party embedded in the company.
“By law, Chinese companies are required to set up Communist Party units within their offices to ensure that business policies and employees toe the Party line,” the news site reported. “ByteDance, founded in March 2012, set up its Party committee in October 2014.”
China’s foreign ministry expressed opposition to Trump’s executive orders, but gave no indication whether Beijing might retaliate.
Earlier, Trump threatened a deadline of Sept. 15 to “close down” TikTok in the United States unless Microsoft Corp. or another company acquires it.
TikTok is popular for its short, catchy videos. The company says it has 100 million users in the United States and hundreds of millions worldwide.
The Trump administration has expressed concern Chinese social media services could provide American users’ personal information to Chinese authorities.
Officials point to the Communist Party’s ability to compel cooperation from Chinese companies. U.S. regulators cited similar security concerns last year when the Chinese owner of Grindr was ordered to sell the dating app.
“The danger posed by Chinese-owned applications like TikTok and WeChat is that the Chinese Communist Party can force these companies to turn over Americans’ user data the company collects and manipulate what users see or don’t see,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican.
In a statement, TikTok expressed shock at the order and complained it violates U.S. law. The company said it doesn’t store American user data in China and never has given it to Beijing or censored content at the government’s request.
TikTok said it spent nearly a year trying to reach a “constructive solution” but the Trump administration “paid no attention to facts” and tried improperly to insert itself into business negotiations. TikTok said it would “pursue all remedies” available to ensure the company and its users are “are treated fairly.”
WeChat’s owner, Tencent, the most valuable Asian technology company, and Microsoft declined to comment.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an expansion of the U.S. crackdown on Chinese technology to include barring Chinese apps from U.S. app stores, citing alleged security threats and calling out TikTok and WeChat by name.
The Chinese foreign ministry said the moves will hurt American companies and consumers.
“The United States is using national security as an excuse, frequently abuses national power and unreasonably suppresses companies of other countries,” said a ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin. “This is an outright hegemonic act. China is firmly opposed to it.”
Wang, who didn’t mention TikTok or any other company by name, called on the Trump administration to “correct its wrongdoing” but gave no indication how Beijing might respond.
Trump’s orders say the Chinese-owned apps “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” They cite the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act and call on the Commerce secretary to define the banned dealings by Sept. 15.
WeChat, known in Chinese as Weixin, is a hugely popular messaging app that links to finance and other services. It has more than 1 billion users. Around the world, many people of Chinese descent use WeChat to stay in touch with friends and family and to conduct business in mainland China.
Within China, WeChat is censored and expected to adhere to content restrictions set by authorities. The Citizen Lab internet watchdog group in Toronto says WeChat monitors files and images shared abroad to aid its censorship in China.
Tencent Holdings Ltd. also owns parts or all of major game companies like Epic Games, publisher of Fortnite, a major video game hit, and Riot Games, which is behind League of Legends.
The Trump administration already was embroiled in a tariff war with Beijing over its technology ambitions. Washington has blocked acquisitions of some U.S. assets by Chinese buyers and has cut off most access to American components and other technology for Huawei Technologies Ltd., a maker of smartphones and network equipment that is China’s first global tech brand.
China-backed hackers have been blamed for breaches of U.S. federal databases and the credit agency Equifax.
In China, the Communist Party limits what foreign tech companies can do and blocks access to the Google search engine, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, along with thousands of websites operated by news organizations and human rights, pro-democracy and other activist groups.
The Communist Party has used the entirely state-controlled press to incite public anger at Trump’s actions with propaganda.
“ByteDance is a Chinese company subject to control of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican. “Its ownership of TikTok puts at risks the privacy of Americans, especially our kids, and potentially subjects them to manipulation by Beijing. I commend the president for ordering ByteDance to divest from TikTok and I encourage the administration to explore options that will allow TikTok to escape Chinese Communist control so Americans can use its app safely.”
Adapted from reporting by Associated Press.