Posts tagged: Trump Administration

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

U.S.-China Journalist Visa War: Further Undermining A Free Press

By , June 16, 2020
Wall Street Journalist Josh Chin

Wall Street Journalist Josh Chin

2020 was going to be a good year for Josh Chin.  He had just become Deputy Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal’s Beijing Bureau, had been awarded a prestigious New America fellowship, and received the Gerald Loeb Award for international reporting.  His was a career on the rise; a long way from his start as a freelancer.

On February 19, 2020, Chin, in his new role as Deputy Bureau Chief, sat in a waiting room at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Chin’s boss was on the other side of a closed door, meeting with Ministry officials to discuss whether the Ministry would delay renewing one of their staffer’s soon-to-be-expired journalist visa.  Two weeks prior, The Journal had published an op-ed entitled “China the Real Sick Man of Asia” and the Ministry immediately responded, lambasting the author for his arrogance, prejudice and ignorance.  Chin and his boss were there to convince Ministry officials not to retaliate against their colleague.

When his boss emerged, Chin waited to hear his colleague’s fate: renewed credentials or delayed visa.  Neither his boss told him.  Instead, the Ministry had decided to expel Chin and another colleague along with the staffer.  Even though Chin’s journalist visa was still valid, he had five days to pack up his life of 13 years and get out.

Since 2012, the Chinese government has used its power over the journalist visa process to censor foreign news outlets.  For the Chinese government and the ruling Communist Party, the media exists to serve the Party.  “[L]ove the party, protect the party, and closely align [] with the party. . . .” President Xi Jinping told the government-run People’s Daily during a visit to their offices in 2016.  To keep foreign journalists in line, the Chinese government has used harassment, surveillance, visa delays and visa downgrades according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.

But for the United States, the press is viewed as central to our democracy, its freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1785.  Because of this bedrock principle, the U.S. government has been hesitant to retaliate against Chinese journalists in response to the Chinese government’s provocations.  But enter Donald Trump, a president who constantly attacks the press.  For Trump, rolling back press Chinese journalists’ freedoms was not a hard choice.  Instead, it corresponded perfectly with his effort to undermine the press, an institution crucial to our democracy.

President Richard Nixon, not a fan of the press

Trump is not the first president hostile to the press.  John Adams signed into law the Sedition Act of 1798 which criminalized the publication of “false, scandalous or malicious writing” about the federal government.  Richard Nixon privately maintained an “enemies list” and illegally surveilled certain reporters.  The Obama Administration prosecuted 11 government employees and contractors for revealing classified information to the press.  But Trump’s treatment of the press is different and more nefarious to our democracy.  It’s “a systematic effort to de-legitimize the news media as a check on government power,” University of Georgia media law professor Johnathan Peters told the Committee to Protect Journalists last month.

The day Chin was expelled from China, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the Chinese government’s actions, stating that “[m]ature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions. The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech.”  But on March 2, 2020, the State Department limited the number of journalist visas issued to Chinese state-run outlets to 100, effectively expelling 60 Chinese reporters.  The Chinese government responded with more severe sanctions: the expulsion of U.S. citizens employed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.  Not long after, the Trump Administration issued its most punitive sanction yet: downgrading every Chinese journalist’s visa to a three-month term from a previous unlimited time period, regardless of whether they work for a Chinese, state-run news outlet or The New York Times.   The Chinese government has yet to respond.  But expect it to similarly relegate U.S. journalists to a three-month visa or expel all U.S. journalists from China.

Two expelled Wall Street Journal Reporters – Philip Wen (L) and Josh Chin (R) – on their way out of China. Photo Courtesy of Greg Baker / AFP

The Trump Administration’s tit-for-tat diplomacy is a far cry from Pompeo’s “correct response.”  Instead, it mimics Beijing’s tactics: restricting speech through the journalist visa process.  The United States, once the international champion of freedom of the press, is following the lead of an authoritarian, one-party state.  But this should not be a surprise.  The Trump Administration’s treatment of the domestic press the past three years reflects its authoritarian bent.  Trump repeatedly tweets “fake news” about news stories he doesn’t like and has called the U.S. media “the enemy of the people.”  The White House revoked CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s White House press credentials after Trump told him he was a “rude, terrible person.”  Trump’s re-election campaign has sued three major media organizations for libel in cases considered “long shots.”  These are all pages from Beijing’s playbook, a playbook where the media is subservient to the ruling party.

Some of Chin’s last articles from China were on the emergence of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan.  His reporting from early February, as well as that of his fellow, expelled colleagues, exposed the pandemic nature of COVID-19: hospitals overrun with patients; front-line medical workers dying of the virus; mortuaries unable to process the massive number of dead.  Their reporting foreshadowed what we would see on our shores a few months later.  Even with the Chinese government hiding early facts about the novel coronavirus, U.S. reporters were able to find – and report – the truth.  But this truth is an impediment to the Trump Administration’s narrative that China’s lack of transparency prevented it from recognizing the severity of COVID-19.  So while the Trump Administration publicly laments the Chinese government’s restrictions on U.S. reporters, it has to know that its retaliatory tactics means that there will be even less U.S. reporters in China.  But this may be precisely what it wants.

How Misperceptions of China Hobbled Our COVID Response

Last Friday, the United States reported its deadliest day in its fight against COVID-19: 2,909 people dead in one day, bringing the total to 65,173. In two months, COVID-19 has taken more American lives than the decades-long war in Vietnam and it has quickly surpassed the estimated flu deaths in the U.S for the season.  On Monday, experts gave a dire prediction: by the beginning of August over 134,000 Americans lives will be lost to COVID-19, almost doubling an estimate made just a few weeks ago. Americans remain in a state of shock and sixty-five percent of all Americans oppose re-opening.

Meanwhile, at the White House, another story is being crafted. While experts were upping their estimates for the number of dead, President Donald Trump was doing a victory lap about his successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, repeatedly stating that the country is optimistic about re-opening, as if saying this multiple times somehow makes it true.  Key to Trump’s smoke-and-mirror strategy to hide his own ineptitude and incompetency is to blame China.  Last week, Trump told the press that if China had stopped the virus when it started, the United States would not have had so many deaths. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo beat the same drum, tweeting, that “China has a history of infecting the world. . . .”  Of course he didn’t offer any evidence to support this claim.

But this blame shifting makes the United States into a weak player, a country with no power to protect its people. Does the U.S. really lack the ability to change the course of what happens on its shores? For sure, the Chinese government is not innocent in all of this, it delayed by a month full knowledge that pandemic that was exploding in its midst.  But once the Chinese government admitted that there was human-to-human transmission and the numbers coming out of China showed cases doubling every four days, the writing was on the wall: this highly contagious virus was going global and the United States needed to act to pronto.

But that writing is only on the wall if your knowledge of China is grounded in today’s realities and its based on some archaic impression.  Unfortunately, the Trump Administration’s perception of China – and its people – is somehow stuck in 2003. Back then, SARs – another novel coronavirus that emerged from China – was a global threat. But it barely made any headway in the United States. We had around 328 cases, and the vast majority of which were Americans who visited China.

President Donald Trump speaking from the podium at one of his White House COVID-19 press conferences.

But fast forward 17 years and you have a different China. It’s the second largest economy in the world and its middle class is 420 million strong and growing. And this Chinese middle class loves to travel. In 2003, Chinese tourists made only 20 million trips abroad. In 2018, they took a whopping 150 million overseas trips.  Compare that to the United States. In 2003, 32 million Americans traveled abroad in 2003; in 2018, the number was only at 93 million. One of the top ten source cities of Chinese tourists abroad?  Wuhan, a city that has long served as an important trade hub for central China and at one point was home to various foreign concessions in the early 20th century. Given Wuhan’s prominence and the amount of travel that Chinese tourists do these days, there was no way this highly contagious virus could be contained.  If Trump Administration knew anything about today’s China, it should have assumed that by late January, COVID-19 had made it to our shores and was spreading.

Even New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo – who has been handling this crisis far more competently than his federal counterpart – seems mildly baffled that the COVID-19 strain floating around New York City shows that it came from Europe.  But again, knowing the China that exists today, this makes sense.  In 2018, over 6 million Chinese tourists visited Europe; only 3 million visited the United States in 2018, with 1.1 million visiting New York City. Unsurprisingly, of the 6 million Chinese tourists that visited Europe, over 2 million visited Italy.  In 2019, the Lombardy region became the top destination for Chinese travelers to Italy.

Well, this is one way to deal with quarantine.

But instead of following these numbers, Trump was lulled into complacency. “We have it under control” Trump kept telling the public in January and February. But with little COVID-19 testing during that time, these statements were just puffery, deadly puffery as we have now found out. Trump was likely making these assertions based on an outdated perception of China, believing that distance would still protect the United States like it did in 2003 with SARs. But China has changed, and its massive middle class enjoys traveling just as much as European and American citizens do. This pandemic was going to go international even before anyone could have determined that COVID-19 was a problem. Trump’s initial travel restrictions on flights from mainland China, also showed his ignorance.  While helpful to some degree, it disregarded the fact that Chinese tourists travel to Asia and Europe much more than to the United States.

But you know who wasn’t stuck in 2003?  The other countries of Asia.  The vast majority of Chinese tourists – over 65% – travel only as far as neighboring countries and territories in the region.  As a result, these countries – countries without the United States’ economic prowess and robust health care system – took decisive action early. And they didn’t know anything more than Trump did; they too were kept in the dark early on by China.  But what they did know was that China had changed since SARs, and once they found out that COVID-19 was transmissible among humans and was spreading like wildfire in Wuhan, they took action – instituting widespread testing, conducting contact tracing, and assuming the worst about the virus. None of these countries have an infection rate anywhere close to the United States.

Imagine if the Trump Administration understood the realities of today’s China?  Maybe then it would have instituted wide-spread testing, without restrictions that limited testing to only those who traveled from China. Maybe this widespread testing would have uncovered clusters of community spread, allowing us to take more decisive actions earlier. Maybe we would not have needed to shut down our entire economy. Maybe we could have saved lives. Unfortunately, we will never know.  More Americans will die while the Trump Administration seeks to blame its mortal enemy, and allow its outdated, Cold War paradigm keep us from working with the one country we need to work with to stop this pandemic: China.

 

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