China’s drive to expand its influence through soft power mechanisms like censorship is coming into sharper focus, especially under Xi Jinping’s leadership. Recently, the social media app TikTok has become a prominent symbol of this global strategy.
The platform consistently denies that its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, is close to China’s government.
“ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. It is a private company,” TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew said. But congressional hearings in the United States and discussions about potential bans this year may suggest that there are suspicions of a deeper, more intricate connection.
The crux of the matter lies in understanding how TikTok, and platforms like it, fit into China’s wider interests in spreading its culture, enhancing its global influence, and censoring views it objects to across national borders.
By aligning itself with the Chinese government’s narrative, TikTok would certainly reduce its chances of being banned there. Such an ethos, however, starkly contrasts with those of Western democracies that champion freedom of expression, even when it encompasses controversial or unpopular opinions.
The US Supreme Court, for instance, adheres to a constitutional doctrine that holds that the American government cannot prohibit the “expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
The potential and temptation for China to exert censorship across borders gets magnified when it’s intertwined with global economic interests.
China’s emphasis on cyber sovereignty and efforts to mold digital standards globally along with its aspirations to position itself at the helm of the digital era are closely aligned with its wider geopolitical goals.
Such global ambitions are intricately tied to China’s economic prowess. Using the promise of access to its vast market and investments, it has been criticized for exerting what has been described as “economic coercion.”
This economic leverage becomes a subtle yet powerful tool, potentially making nations or businesses think twice about opposing or criticizing Beijing’s policies.
The conundrum isn’t just about TikTok’s content policies. It’s a reflection of the broader challenges global corporations face, balancing profit motives with foundational principles.
China’s efforts to exert influence go beyond mere content curation. Its economic prowess allows it to deploy what some academics have called “transnational repression” – a potent tool in the Communist Party-state’s transnational censorship arsenal.
There is evidence that China has used a combination of digital platforms, surveillance technology, and international collaborations to suppress dissent. This is not just happening domestically, but also among its diaspora.
If governments and corporations compromise their foundational values to access China’s markets and resources, it extends the regime’s control, ensuring that criticism and challenges to its authority are curtailed globally.
The ideological rift between platforms like TikTok and Western democratic values therefore extends beyond mere business challenges.
Beijing’s unwavering adherence to its ideological principles, including campaigns such as “class struggle,” can be traced back to historical movements in China like the “Yan’an Rectification Movement” of 1942.
In today’s interconnected world, digital platforms are not just sources of entertainment. Instead, they represent the convergence of technology, politics, and culture. TikTok is a testament to this fusion.
With its catchy challenges and trending dances, it is not just an entertainment app, but a digital stage where business, entertainment and geopolitics converge.
As we continue to interact with these platforms, it’s vital to understand these underlying currents and recognize the geopolitical games at play beneath the surface of viral trends and social media challenges.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.