High Stakes

Cold War grown-ups wreck TikTok’s fun in the US-China row

Beijing aims to bring up the tech conflict with Washington in a review of the phase one trade deal

TikTok has always been a fun app for teens. But now, it is at the center of a major diplomatic row between the grown-ups in Beijing and Washington.

The ByteDance-owned short-video site has been dragged into the New Cold War by the United States and China along with Tencent’s social media app WeChat.

Last week, US President Donald Trump targeted the Chinese parent companies of TikTok and WeChat after announcing bans on American transactions. It was the latest move in a technology conflict that is rapidly spiraling out of control.

News that Microsoft was in talks to buy TikTok created a storm in the Chinese media with words such as “theft” and “smash and grab” bandied around.

‘Ban TikTok’

“Of course, it is possible – even likely – that Trump’s real intent is not so much to ban TikTok as to force a fire sale to a US buyer,” Shang-Jin Wei, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University, said.

“Trump wants the buyer to be ‘very American,’ and has even mused that the acquiring company should pay the US government a fee for driving the price down with its threatened ban,” he wrote in a commentary for China-US Focus.

But then, the situation has deteriorated to such a degree that China’s team will bring the matter up in video talks with the US delegation at the weekend. Both sides are due to discuss the implementation of the phase one trade deal. 

“We hope [the] US will stop taking discriminatory action against Chinese companies and create conditions for the implementation of the phase one trade agreement,” Assistant Commerce Minister Ren Hongbin told a media briefing on Thursday.

Mutual grievances look certain to dominate the virtual meeting amid deteriorating diplomatic relations as the world’s two economic superpowers slug it out.

Covid-19 pandemic

So far, the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with Beijing’s pledge to buy American imports worth an extra US$200 billion on 2017 levels. Included in that shopping list are agricultural produce and manufactured products.

But that has been derailed by the coronavirus crisis as Sino-US relations become increasingly strained over the crackdown in Hong Kong and China’s militarization of the South China Sea.

“There is still time for the Trump administration to change course and avoid damaging US interests. But the clock is running … tick-tock,” Wei said.

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