Posts tagged: democracy

The TikTok Red Herring

By , August 5, 2020

For the past couple of weeks, the Trump Administration has been saber-rattling about TikTok, a Chinese-based social media platform popular among America’s youth and full of silly short videos – relatives dancing together, kids lip-syncing, teens sharing beauty tips.  According to Reuters, 60% of TikTok’s active users in the U.S. are between the ages of 16 and 24.  The idea that TikTok is a national security threat and a danger to our democracy seemed preposterous.

But over the weekend, these seemingly preposterous ideas became very real, with U.S. President Donald Trump stating that he was going to “ban” TikTok from the U.S. market.  And on Monday, Slate’s What Next podcast took on the TikTok debate, interviewing Axios reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian on the reasons behind the Trump Administration’s desire for a ban.  While an informative interview on the Trump Administration’s justifications behind its threats to ban TikTok,  China Law & Policy came to realize that it’s time to take a deeper dive on TikTok.

Is TikTok A National Security Threat? 

Much of the What Next interview centered around TikTok as a national security threat, arguing that because TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is located in China, TikTok may have to share information with the Chinese government under Chinese law.  As China cybersecurity expert Samm Sacks recently noted, theoretically, this could happen.  But according to TikTok, it does not maintain any U.S. users’ data in China.  Instead that information is kept on servers in the U.S. and in Singapore.  Additionally, TikTok has allegedly cut off China-based engineers to TikTok’s source code and data.

Bytedance and TikTok founder Zhang Yiming

There is potential here for the Chinese government to obtain a large swath of U.S. users’ data, especially if the protections that TikTok has allegedly put in place don’t work.  But as Sacks points out, we have no evidence that this has actually occurred. But yet, the U.S. government is asking the American public to accept a forced a sale of TikTok to a U.S. company – something that feels more and more like a shakedown – without providing a scintilla of evidence that this song-and-dance social media platform popular among teenagers is an actual national security threat.  Our elected leaders owe us more than just conclusory statements. If they want us to forgo one of the core tenants of our society – a free and flourishing market economy – they need to provide us some evidence.

And as Sacks points out in her piece, if the Trump Administration is truly concerned about potential national security threats, it would be wise to develop a system to test the safeguards companies have put in place to guarantee that U.S. users’ data will not be used by any government:

The way to deal with this problem is to develop a country-agnostic set of criteria with robust rules not just for TikTok, but for how all companies collect, retain, and share their data. Instead of playing a game of whack-a-mole against a rotating cast of Chinese tech companies, the U.S. would be wise to spend more time developing legislation and standards for how all companies, regardless of country of origin, protect online privacy and secure data.

But such forward-thinking ideas that would actually solve the problem do not seem to be a part of the Trump Administration’s TikTok calculus.

Is TikTok A Danger to Democracy?

According to Allen-Ebrahimian, the Chinese government could use TikTok to wage a campaign of disinformation to influence our elections.  But that danger is not unique to TikTok.  Remember the 2016 election and Russian interference?  According to the Mueller Report, that election interference was largely done on Facebook through fake accounts and purchased ads.  TikTok is no more or less susceptible to disinformation than any other social media platform, be it FaceBook, Instagram, Snapchat, YourTube or Twitter.  There is nothing holding the Chinese government back from using those sites if TikTok is banned in the U.S.

But if you’re China, why stop there?  As Jeremy Daum recently pointed out, the best way for foreign governments to influence our elections is through limitless donations to Political Action Committees (PACs) by U.S. subsidiaries of state-owned enterprises. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United  v. Federal Election Commission, this is perfectly legal.   By treating corporations the same as individuals, Citizens United leaves the door wide open for foreign influence in our politics. In the case of Chinese corporations, this also means foreign government involvement. Most multinational Chinese corporations, like Haier, China Telcom, and China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCE), have U.S. subsidiaries. These are companies incorporated in the United States: Haier’s U.S. subsidiary, Haier American Holding Corporation, China Telecom’s subsidiary, China Telecom Americas, and CSCE’s subsidiary, China Construction America, are all incorporated in Delaware.

Under Citizens United, all three of these subsidiaries are citizens of Delaware and enjoy the same political speech rights as any other citizen of the United States. Citizens United does not permit us to look behind their corporate veil to see their relationship to foreign corporations. Haier, China Telecom and CSCE are all officially government-run. While the Chinese government does not meddle in the corporation’s daily affairs, it will exert its influence if it suits the government’s self-interest. For example, in 1994, Haier, a manufacturer of washing machines and refrigerators, was pressured by the Chinese government into acquiring a pharmaceutical company, a venture that ended badly.  And while Citizens United forbids “foreign influence” on a U.S. subsidiary’s political donation decisions, how are we going to find that smoking gun in the complex and complicated world of multinational corporations?

TikTok is not the demise of our democracy.  We are.  In the past four years, neither Congress nor the Trump Administration has done anything to put in place structures that protect our elections from foreign interference via social media.  And a decade later, Citizens United still stands.

Conclusion

There are serious issues with TikTok. It is necessary to understand better what it does with U.S. user’s data and some of the examples of censored speech, especially if the speech is anti-China, are problematic and need to be looked into.

But in the end, these are insufficient bases for the extreme tool of divestiture for national security reasons.  Banning TikTok is not going to solve our problems.  Setting up smart laws, rules and systems that ensure that foreign tech companies are not national security threats nor a danger to our democracy will go a much longer way.  But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards with this Administration.

For Those Who Don’t Have TikTok – Three Fun TikToks:

@thearielleWhen your old jam comes on! 🔥 ##foryoupage ##fyp ##comedian @mattjcutshall♬ original sound – thearielle

@afrobysaraawho’s down for this challenge? ##familychallenge ##familygoals ##nobodydancevideo ##fyp ##foyou ##viral♬ original sound – sara.afro

@jalaiahharmonLike we hit the lottery 🆙🔥🥳 @addisonre @charlidamelio♬ original sound – _.xoxlaii

Book Review: Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements – Chinese Rebels From LA to Beijing

By , October 17, 2013

You can’t really be a dissident in an authoritarian regime without being a difficult character. These are individuals who for some reason – call it bravery, call it madness, call it no other choice – feel the need to speak out knowing, either consciously or not, that their cause is likely futile and the full force of the authoritarian regime will come down on them like a ton of bricks.  As a result, their life often becomes their cause.  What happens to these characters when things get so bad that they are forced to flee their country?  What happens to their causes?

These questions rose again this past June when Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident who escaped his illegal house detention in 2012 and made it to the U.S., caused a stir in the media about his departure from NYU.   But answering these questions – or at least attempting to – isn’t untraveled ground as one China scholar pointed out in the wake of Chen’s NYU exodus.  Back in 2001, Ian Buruma, a Dutch China-hand and journalist, published Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing and this past summer seemed an appropriate time to pick up the book and read it.

Buruma’s Bad Elements begins by looking at the Chinese dissidents – starting with China’s 1978 Democracy Wall Movement through the 1989

Chai Ling during the Tiananmen Protests

Chai Ling during the Tiananmen Protests

Tiananmen student activists – living a new life in the United States.  His survey from Wei Jingsheng to Wang Dan and Chai Ling shows a group of people out of sorts in their adopted land.  Without access to China, most have given up their cause.  Chai Ling, the famous female student leader of the Tiananmen protests is now a successful businesswoman with a Harvard Business School MBA.  Same is true of her former Tiananmen colleague Li Lu.  He now runs an investment company in New York.  Many of the other student leaders just seem lost and lonely.

The pre-Tiananmen/post-Cultural Revolution Chinese exiled in America do not fare any better.  Separated from their cause, most have failed to figure out how to remain relevant to the mission back home.  Fang Lizhi‘s wife, Li Shuxian, probably expressed the exiled dissident’s predicament best when she told Buruma “[n]ow I am finally free to talk, but there is no one for me to talk to.”  Even amongst the exiled dissident community itself, there is little conversation for as Buruma recounts, the splits within the community are cavernous with some dissidents refusing to be in the same room as others.  One would think the bonds within the community would be stronger, but as Buruma insightfully details, the personality traits that allows one to become a dissident are not those that allow them to create strong bonds with others.  But even in honestly observing the exiled dissidents, Buruma never loses respect for them, reminding the reader that these people had the courage to speak up and that their suffering is likely incomprehensible to anyone else.  These individuals carry the battle scars of seeking democracy in a dictatorship and Buruma is always cognizant of this fact.

Modern day Singapore; what Buruma refers to as "Disneyland with capital punishment"

Modern day Singapore; what Buruma refers to as “Disneyland with capital punishment”

But Bad Elements most fascinating aspect is Buruma’s attempt to breakdown “the Chinese Myth,” a key tenant of which is that the Chinese are just not made for or currently prepared for democracy; some form of an authoritarian rule is necessary.

Buruma begins this journey to deconstruct this myth in Singapore, a Chinese-based society where the post-colonial government took and maintained power in the most vicious of ways.  For those who have never been to Singapore or know little of the details of its history, this chapter is a must read.  Singapore is a scary society that holds tight to the belief that this type of rule is necessary in a “Confucian” and “Asian-valued” society.  But even with such pressure to conform and unfathomable methods of torture, there are still those in Singapore who choose to dissent.  Their very existence in Singapore demonstrates that the idea that democracy is too alien a notion for the Chinese is nonsense.

The experiences of Taiwan and Hong Kong further demonstrates that the Chinese can have democracy, with Taiwan offering the best hope that democracy can succeed in a Chinese society.  While Taiwanese democracy is often punctuated with physical assaults within parliament, as Buruma shows, after a period of abusive rule, it has become a rather thriving and real democracy.  Hong Kong is similar except that its reversion back to the Mainland and the change in leadership to more Mainland, business-focused executives threatens that democracy.  In fact, in Hong Kong, the Chinese myth is beginning to reassert itself, with some prominent leaders stating that perhaps the Chinese people cannot handle full democracy.

Buruma ends his journey of destroying the Chinese myth by visiting the Mainland where shockingly, the belief in the need for a strong

Beijing cab driver looking for democracy

Beijing cab driver looking for democracy

government is not just prevalent amongst China’s intellectuals (who usually are the dissidents), but is a strongly held.  It is Buruma’s cab driver who most cogently expresses the desire for democracy, demonstrating that while the intellectual class believes China’s masses are not ready for democracy, those masses sure think they are.

Although Bad Elements is 12 years old, it is certainly not dated and raises issues that are still pertinent.  Twelve years later, the Chinese Myth is still very much alive and not just among the Chinese; at times Western businesses prefer to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s choice of leadership and instead are easily lulled by the belief of the Chinese Myth.

Buruma believes that democracy is inevitable in China and that it must be brought more quickly than the current (as of 2001) intellectuals appear to want.  Even as early as 2001, the Mainland intellectuals, perhaps reminded of what happened in Tiananmen Square, sought to more gradually change China.

But one wonders, who is Buruma – or any non-Chinese – to say that this approach is wrong?  Only the Chinese themselves can find their path.

Xu Zhiyong, a more gradual reformer finds himself in and out of jail

Xu Zhiyong, a more gradual reformer finds himself in and out of jail

This theory of gradual reform within the system has only gotten stronger in the past twelve years, with current activists like Xu Zhiyong seeking to work within the system.

Unfortunately, the past four years have shown that perhaps Buruma was right to feel frustrated – the Chinese government has also crackdown

harshly on this set of reform-minded activists.  Buruma’s suggestion twelve years ago – that the “social stability” which the Chinese government and the intellectuals desire – can never be achieved where a people is ruled by an authoritarian regime – rings more true today than ever before.

Another prescient aspect of Bad Elements is Buruma’s observation that many of the dissidents, those in the US, Singapore, Tawain, Hong Kong and even China, are Christians.  This is an occurrence that has only increased over time.  Most of today’s Mainland activist profess the Christian faith.  Buruma speculates that Christianity is prevalent among Chinese dissidents as it replaces one religion – Maoism and the Party – with another.  It’s unclear if that is the reason or if the reason is more because many of the dissidents see Christian values (at least the ones that make it to China) are akin to the rights and democracy which they seek.

Chai Ling today (to the left), working with her group "All Girls Allowed"

Chai Ling today (to the left), working with her group “All Girls Allowed”

But there are aspects of Bad Elements that do show their age, mostly about the exile community.  Although slightly dismissive of Chai Ling in Bad Elements, she has re-engaged with China.  In 2010, Chai founded “All Girls Allowed,” a Christian-influenced non-profit that seeks to eliminate the injustices associated with the one-child policy in China.  Similarly, Xiao Qiang who is give short shrift in the book, has become an important force in communicating the stories of dissent from the Mainland through his website China Digital Times.  Xiao remains extremely relevant to China’s reform movement.  And that’s the aspect of the book that Buruma could not have fathomed at the time – the rise of the internet.  The internet certainly shapes the role of today’s exile differently than those of years past and perhaps allows the dissident community to continue their connections with activists on the Mainland.

Rating: ★★★½☆ — as a result of certain aspects of the book being outdated (which is too be expected from a 12 year old book about contemporary China)

Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage Books 2001), 341 pages.

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