China softens as US announces Clean Network | WeChat and TikTok’s infiltration overseas
AUGUST 11, 2020
On August 5th, the U.S. announced that they will be blocking CCP influence in five areas on what they refer to as a Clean Network for the U.S. That means the U.S. will block the CCP at five areas: carriers, stores, apps, cloud storage and cables. Among the targets are China’s Alibaba, Biadu and Tencent, which offer downloadable apps, in U.S. mobile app stores. According to a statement from the U.S. State Department, more than 30 countries have already joined the US’s net cleaning campaign. And many of the world’s largest telecommunications companies have been cleared as clean telcos, pledging to use only trusted carriers on their clean networks.
The CCP uses Internet censorship in mainland China to restrict citizens’ direct access to the majority of the international Internet, and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are banned. Several China experts have compared the US’s net cleaning campaign to China’s firewall, suggesting that the U.S. action is an attempt to create a technological iron curtain outside of China’s firewall and to completely exclude China’s high tech industries from the future international digital economy. China’s state media, Xinhua, interviewed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in response to Pompeo’s Iron Curtain speech of July 2013. His attitude this time was quite moderate.
But prior to that, the foreign minister’s attitude was much different. On August six, President Donald Trump signed two executive orders barring any person or business in the U.S. from doing business with TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, as well as WeChat and its parent company, Tencent, in an effort to eliminate threats from the CCP in the information and communications technology supply chain.
Both orders will take effect in 45 days. It’s unclear whether the ban will require U.S. companies to sever ties with WeChat. But the executive order says that after 45 days, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross shall determine the scope of the prohibited transactions. The move stunned all sectors of the Chinese community, including top Communist Party officials, tech companies and ordinary Chinese people. Shares of Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, plunged 10 percent the day after the news was announced in a report. Morgan Stanley said that China’s tech, hardware and semiconductor industry is hit the most. More than 30 percent of the revenue of the 11 listed Chinese companies in this industry comes from the United States. Among them, Raytheon, listed in Hong Kong, has 46 percent of its revenue coming from the U.S.. On August 7th, Yang Jiechi, the director of the office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, published an article in the Xinhua news agency entitled Steadfastly Maintaining and Stabilizing China-U.S. Relations. The full text of which exceeded 6,300 words. Most of the article recalled 41 years of Sino-U.S. friendship and claimed the door to dialog and communication between China and the U.S. is always open. Moreover, China’s online propagandists, commonly called 50 Cent army, were recently ordered to stop making anti-U.S. comments, and they were asked to change the theme of the propaganda to win-win for China and the U.S. For this past week, voices against the U.S., both on Twitter and on Chinese social media platforms like WeChat, suddenly disappeared. Why has the Chinese Communist Party suddenly softened to the U.S.? Radio Free Asia reported on August 7th that American China expert Pei Minxin said on the Aspen Security Forum that, “Sources tell me that Xi Jingping himself was shocked two years ago by the sharp turnaround in the U.S.-China relations.” It could be the CCP’s lack of anticipation of the U.S. strategic shift, resulting in the lack of readiness to react. Analysts say this kind of softness is not genuine and that letting the other side drop its guard will buy time for the CCP to develop a strategy. In fact, not many were surprised by what happened to TikTok. On August 6, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to pass Trump’s executive order banning federal employees from using TikTok on public devices. And the House of Representatives passed a similar bill last month.
TikTok is currently a major security risk, both to our data security and to our national security. ByteDance, which is TikTok’s parent corporation is based in Beijing. And we all know that Chinese corporations and the Chinese Communist Party are in many ways the same thing.
ByteDance claimed that the United States does not follow the process of law and threatened to take legal actions if it is not treated fairly, while also denying TikTok could be used as a propaganda tool. It also claimed that TikTok had never shared user data with the Chinese government and had never been asked to censor content. But there is plenty of evidence that the company is controlled by a branch of the Chinese Communist Party. A mainland Internet monitor told Radio Free Asia that it was an open secret that the mainland software was cooperating with the CCP Ministry of Public Security under the Chinese national security law. Radio Free Asia also reported on August 7th that an unnamed officer from the Chinese consulate wanted to defect to the U.S. and divulged a secret to the U.S. That secret was that a Chinese military official used fake identities to get into the Houston consulate and use TikTok’s backend data to send customized insurgent propaganda videos to targeted African-Americans and helped develop Black Lives Matter and Antifa campaigns. Because China does not want Trump to be reelected. There are more than two billion downloads of TikTok worldwide, and the U.S. is its third largest market with 165 million downloads. This is why many American business giants have been watching it for quite a long time. TikTok is required to find a buyer by September 15th or it’ll be banned in the U.S.. Microsoft has shown a high interest in acquiring it. Trump said last week that if the U.S. government can receive a significant portion of the purchase of TikTok, he would support the deal between Microsoft and TikTok.
“Either way, whether it’s Microsoft or somebody else or it was the Chinese, what the price is, the United States should get a very large percentage of that price because we’re making it possible. Without us, you know, I use the expression, it’s like the landlord and the tenant. And without the lease, the tenant doesn’t have the value. Well, we’re sort of in a certain way, the lease. We make it possible to have this great success. TikTok’s a tremendous success, but a big portion of it’s in this country. It would come from the sale. Whatever the number is, it would it would come from the sale.”
“It’s got to be an American company. It’s got to be American security. It’s got to be owned here. We don’t want to have any problems with security, et cetera.”
Moreover, Reuters also reported that Twitter has been talking with ByteDance and assessing the possibility of buying TikTok. A recent lawsuit filed by 20 American teens through their parents over TikTok’s, unauthorized theft of their facial features, addresses and close contacts, as well as the covert transfer of data to China has a strong chance of success. The plaintiffs’ legal team has significant evidence and are requesting a settlement of one hundred and sixty five billion U.S. For many Chinese, it was the action taken on WeChat, that most deeply impacted their lives. Because of China’s censorship for the past years, WeChat has practically been the only way for overseas Chinese to stay in touch with their contacts in China. WeChat is Tencent’s flagship product, one of China’s largest technology companies. In March of this year, Tencent reported that it had 1.2 Billion monthly active users worldwide, mostly Chinese.
And the app has been subsidized by the Chinese government since its launch in 2011. However, it was also mentioned in Trump’s executive order that like TikTok, WeChat automatically collects large amounts of information about its users. This data collection has the potential to give the CCP access to the personal and proprietary information of Americans. WeChat has been a perfect surveillance tool.
It not only blocks users who criticize the CCP, but also collects private chat messages as evidence. Tencent has never disclosed to the public whether the Chinese government has asked the company for user data, nor has it detailed any kind of encryption.
WeChat also remains by far the most popular source of news for the overseas Chinese immigrant community. In 2018, a study by researcher Zhang Chi of the U.S. based Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that seventy nine percent of Chinese users get their news from WeChat. A survey of Australian Mandarin speakers also found that 60 percent of respondents said WeChat was their main source of news and information. In a May study conducted by Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, it concluded that WeChat censors content from the server side. When a message is sent from one WeChat user to another, it goes through a server managed by Tencent, which checks if the message contains sensitive words or information prohibited by the CCP before passing it on to the recipient. In a 2016 Amnesty International report on user privacy, Tencent scored zero points out of 100 for WeChat’s lack of free speech protections and lack of end-to-end encryption. Ahead of Canada’s 2019 federal election, Canadian Parliament’s Cybersecurity Department also issued a warning about the dangers of WeChat, warning federal members of parliament and government staff not to use it because of potential cybersecurity risks. The federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution of Germany warned in its 2019 annual report that Chinese as well as German nationals in Germany can use the payment systems of Chinese companies such as Tencent and Alibaba. But their data servers are located in China and could be accessed by Chinese government agencies. For now, some other messaging tools are becoming increasingly popular. Signal, an encrypted chat application is now seeing a surge in downloads in China, a Signal spokesperson told CNBC Business on August 7th, that currently Signal is not blocked by the Chinese Internet firewall and can be downloaded from app stores and Web sites. There had been signs hinting that the U.S. would move to a clean network before its official announcement. For instance, on June 17th, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had decided to lay the underseas cables directly to Taiwan, where they originally passed through Hong Kong.
It shows the U.S. has been long on alert on the issue. But China’s response came late.
Elmer Yuen, a Hong Kong based entrepreneur and businessman, who is rumored to have close ties to senior officials in the Communist Party, said on August 7th that at a meeting with senior Chinese officials last year, the officials said that democracy, freedom and the rule of law that Hong Kong’s young people are seeking are not realistic. And they believe that China has a market of one point four billion people and an entire supply chain that the U.S. is unlikely to give up. They believe that foreign countries do business with China for the sole purpose of money, and they are motivated only by profit.
But Yuen believes that for now, the CCP has overestimated itself and underestimated the United States. The current U.S. operation is just the beginning. And there are bigger and more systematic plans to follow.