India’s TikTok ban threatens China’s rise as a global tech power
- The ban may present a model for other countries that seek to curtail the pervasiveness of Chinese apps, while safeguarding their citizens’ data
- It remains unclear how India will enforce the ban, given TikTok – for one – has already been downloaded by roughly one in six people in the country
“Techno-nationalism will manifest itself increasingly across all aspects of geopolitics: national security, economic competitiveness, even social values,” said Alex Capri, a Singapore-based research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation. “It will be increasingly difficult to separate Chinese tech firms from the CCP and China’s geopolitical ambitions. They will find themselves increasingly locked out.”
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Chinese internet firms have struggled to replicate their online services beyond their home turf, even before Washington lawmakers began raising concerns about the wisdom of allowing companies from the world’s second largest economy – like ByteDance – to hoover up valuable personal data.
India amplified those concerns by accusing apps, including TikTok, Tencent’s WeChat, Alibaba’s UC Browser, and Baidu’s map and translation services of threatening its sovereignty and security. Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.
“Beijing should certainly worry that the impact of the deadly clash could push India toward the US,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies at Lingnan University. “But these recent economic measures by India may not by themselves concern Beijing too much as it understands that Modi’s government, facing rising domestic nationalism, has to do something to soothe the public sentiments and retain legitimacy.”
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India’s government procurement website has barred purchases of Chinese-made goods. Authorities have asked the largest e-commerce companies, including Amazon.com and Walmart’s Flipkart, to start showing “country of origin” on goods sold. And India is said to be dragging its heels on clearing goods imported from China, stranding various electronics goods at ports.
“The Indian government thinks about governing the internet in a very similar way to China, which is blanket bans, asserting national boundaries on the internet and essentially carving out what would eventually become a version of the Indian Great Firewall,” said Dev Lewis, a research fellow at Digital Asia Hub in Shanghai. “Everyone’s struggling to deal with governing technology companies and apps, especially ones that cross borders. So when India takes a step like this, it sets a precedent for the things that you can do.”
In terms of the immediate business consequences, ByteDance could be hardest-hit. India is its biggest market with more than 200 million TikTok users. During a brief ban last year, the Chinese company estimated it was missing out on half a million dollars a day of revenue. In a statement posted to Twitter, TikTok India head Nikhil Gandhi said the company complies with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law and has not shared any user information with any foreign government, including Beijing.
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On Tuesday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said China was “strongly concerned” about India’s actions. “The Indian government has a responsibility to uphold the legitimate and legal rights of the international investors including Chinese ones,” he said.
But for now, China does not have many great options to retaliate.
“While Beijing is highly adept at economic coercion, in this case it has somewhat limited options to act in a reciprocal manner,” analysts for the Eurasia Group wrote in a research note. “Bilateral trade is heavily weighted toward Chinese exports to India. Attempts to hurt India economically could blowback on Chinese companies.”