The Plan to Ban TikTok is Outright Xenophobia

Congress’s moves against TikTok threaten freedom of speech and are grounded in baseless anti-Chinese hysteria. That dangerous fearmongering attitude appears to be becoming bipartisan consensus.

Let’s recall something incredibly obvious about human society: it has been very common across history for one group of people to portray a different group of people as sinister, menacing, conniving, and dangerous. Paranoia about nonexistent threats is common, in part because if you don’t have much experience with the group you see as a threat, it’s easy to turn them into bogeymen. In the United States, this kind of paranoia has been ubiquitous throughout our history. Oftentimes, those who were seen as a threat were in fact those who were themselves being subjugated, i.e., Native Americans and the enslaved. In retrospect, a lot of American fearmongering and stereotyping looks ridiculous, such as the “reds under the bed” fear of Soviet infiltration during the Cold War and various incarnations of “yellow peril” panic about Asian people. These kinds of fears not only produced disgusting racist newspaper headlines (“Tiny Brown Men Are Pouring Over The Pacific Coast,” a Seattle newspaper warned about the Chinese in 1900) but led to shameful crimes like the internment of all Japanese Americans as potential traitors and the Chinese massacre of 1871, which was fueled by false rumors that Chinese people were murdering white people. Given our ugly history, we should be constantly on the alert for new cases of xenophobia, the fear of foreigners. 

The U.S. House of Representatives has just overwhelmingly passed a bill that would force the video app TikTok to either be sold or face a nationwide ban. The entire reason is that TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company based in China. A lot of false rumors are being spread that TikTok is thereby effectively owned by “the Chinese government,” but as Senator Rand Paul explained to a Fox News host who repeated this falsehood, the parent company is owned mostly by global investors. Paul is no apologist for the Chinese government, being one of the foremost D.C. politicians to push for an investigation of the possible role of U.S.-funded Chinese virus research in causing the COVID pandemic. But he is skeptical of warmongering rhetoric and has accused Republicans of beating the drums for war with China

The TikTok sale/ban proposal plainly comes out of a wider climate of paranoia about a supposed Chinese threat to the U.S., which has also produced horrible bigoted policies like restrictions on Chinese students studying in the U.S. The actual nature of the Chinese “threat” to the U.S. is never made clear. Usually the only concrete Chinese “threat” pointed to is the possibility of China taking over Taiwan, which it has claimed as its own since the revolution in 1949. The Taiwan dispute is serious, but it doesn’t explain why there’s suddenly panic about Chinese “military-age men” crossing the border, or China “controlling the TikTok algorithm.”

The press around the TikTok ban suggests there are “national security concerns” about having a U.S. app owned by a Chinese company. This is, plainly, part of a unique fear about China—no such concerns would be raised about a French or Israeli or Canadian company. But lawmakers are vague in describing what the actual “national security risk” is. The explanation offered by FBI director Chris Wray is that:

“If you look at the Chinese government’s gobbling up of information and data, and then the use of AI and other tools, ultimately supercomputing, things like that, to marshal all that data to conduct targeting for espionage, targeting for IP theft, targeting for all the things that I and others on this panel have been calling out about the Chinese government… Data is the coin of the realm, those who have the best information have the power and that’s what that enables them to do.”

Huh? What is he saying China is actually going to do? What’s the threat? They’re going to violate copyright? They’re going to find out how many cat videos I watched in a row? What are they going to use this information for, exactly? Wray said “this is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government and it to me screams out with national security concerns.” The word “control” is used a lot, and vague “national security concerns” are often cited. But what is the actual scenario being pictured in which the very security of our nation itself would be imperiled by the fact that a video sharing app is operated out of another country? It’s left vague, the idea being that because the Chinese are sinister and conniving, we simply don’t know what evil ends they will pursue after they have “gobbled our data.” Again, pure xenophobia. 

TikTok has tried hard to assuage lawmakers’ concerns, spending $1.5 billion on a giant project to keep Americans’ data secure and store it in compliance with U.S. law. Called “Project Texas,” this is a “massive corporate restructuring, specifically aimed at building trust with the American government and American users [that] will relocate all U.S. user data to U.S. servers.” But it doesn’t matter. Nothing TikTok can do will please the bipartisan coalition of xenophobes, because the ban proposal isn’t grounded in facts. There is zero evidence that TikTok has done anything sinister to undermine the “security” of the U.S. or has furthered the designs of the Chinese Communist Party. There doesn’t have to be, because this entire thing is based on word association—people hearing the word “China” and thinking “dark plot to undermine us.” The ubiquitous racist presumptions in D.C. have resulted in ludicrous incidents like Senator Tom Cotton demanding that TikTok’s Singaporean CEO swear he isn’t Chinese. As Cotton performed his best imitation of Senator Joe McCarthy, one was reminded of Karl Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.” “Have you ever been associated or affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party?” Cotton asked, seemingly reading directly from the old House Un-American Activities Committee script. TikTok’s poor, exasperated CEO, Shou Zi Chew, futilely protested: “No, Senator. Again, I’m Singaporean!”

In recent years, the rhetoric about China coming from both parties has been alarming. In a time when we need to have unprecedented global cooperation on issues like the climate catastrophe and control of nuclear weapons, we instead hear constant rhetoric that treats China as an enemy rather than simply another country with whom we need to try to cooperate in order to live and prosper on the same Earth. As Noam Chomsky and I documented in this magazine in 2022, the rhetoric is worse among Republicans, but it’s almost as bad among Democrats, and Biden has continued a number of Donald Trump’s anti-China policies. Biden “has used his presidency to stake out hawkish positions toward Beijing,” even taking positions to the right of Trump on TikTok.  

One is tempted to just sigh looking at how disconnected D.C. politicians are from the concerns of ordinary Americans. People can’t afford healthcare, there’s mass starvation in Gaza, and this is what our legislators are spending their time on? I don’t think it’s a great idea politically for Joe Biden to say, essentially: no, you can’t have free college and you can’t have free healthcare, how about instead we threaten to take away the thing you use to distract yourself from your suffering? (My colleague Alex Skopic says it’s as if “a Democrat in 1960 ran on the platform of banning rock and roll.”) But it’s also very dangerous, because it’s part of a wider U.S. push toward confrontation with China that could end up in an absolutely catastrophic war that would wreck human civilization entirely. There is an arms race underway silently in the background, and by treating China as a malevolent enemy, the U.S. encourages China to think of us as one too. 

The TikTok proposal under consideration isn’t just xenophobic and part of an insane, baseless cold war posture toward a foreign country that has never threatened us (and in fact provides a ton of the goods we depend on in our day-to-day lives). It’s also a plain violation of the First Amendment. Anti-China hysteria may be completely grounded in xenophobia, but some legislators clearly also don’t care for the content of TikTok. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat supportive of the anti-TikTok legislation, recently raised concerns over TikTok’s content recommendations. TikTok has been criticized for presenting its users with “pro-Palestinian” content. It has been a major source of videos of the unfolding atrocities in Gaza, and a ban of TikTok could, as the Independent’s Io Dodds reports, “clobber the pro-Palestine movement,” supporters of which have used the platform effectively for communication. Krishnamoorthi was blunt that the renewed push for a ban was spurred by “a lot of things in the interim, including Oct. 7, including the fact that the Osama bin Laden ‘Letter to America’ went viral on TikTok and the platform continued to show dramatic differences in content relative to other social media platforms.”

It’s true that a few months back, TikTokers began reading the letter that Osama bin Laden wrote to Americans explaining his motivations for 9/11. Many were surprised that, while the letter contains a lot of bigotry and religious fanaticism, it also attempts to justify bin Laden’s terrorism as a direct response to U.S. foreign policy. Some said that after reading the letter they felt more critical of America’s role in the world. Some American legislators appear to worry, then, that TikTok presents things that are causing young people to question the morality of U.S. foreign policy, such as the bin Laden letter and videos of the destruction in Gaza. On TikTok, people tend to hear from those the U.S. bombs more often than they do on other platforms. For these American leaders, apparently, this is unacceptable, for those we bomb are supposed to die in silence.

Krishnamoorthi therefore made no secret of the fact that the content of TikTok is just as much of a reason for the ban as the ownership. But that’s a direct admission that this whole push is a violation of the First Amendment. Unless the point is for the government to control speech, what relevance does “October 7” have to a discussion of whether to ban TikTok? 

To the extent, then, that there are other motivations than nationalism and anti-Chinese bigotry at play in the proposal to ban TikTok, they are equally repellent. And yet this plan has bipartisan support in Washington. The disconnect between the American people’s interests and the priorities of national politicians has never been more stark. We need to resist their attempt to get us to be afraid of Chinese people, and to control platforms where viewpoints unfavorable to U.S. imperialism are given a public airing. 

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