A bipartisan group of legislators is pushing to ban TikTok, a social media app with 150 million active monthly users in the United States (Business Insider). TikTok is a subsidiary of the Chinese company ByteDance. In late March, Congressional members grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew for five hours over claims that TikTok is part of a nefarious Chinese communist conspiracy.
Texas representative Dan Crenshaw declared to Chew that Chinese citizens “must cooperate with Chinese intelligence whenever they are called upon, and if they are called upon, they’re bound to secrecy. That would include you.” Chew responded that he is, in fact, Singaporean (Salon). Despite that, Representative Debbie Lasko tried to hold Chew responsible for Chinese policies, from the persecution of Uyghur people to the independence of Taiwan. New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone opined that “the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do here” (MSNBC), while Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington accused Chew of committing a federal crime by lying to Congress (Yahoo!). “To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations,” she said (CNN).
• Reject anti-Asian rhetoric weaponized in the campaign to restrict TikTok.
• Take action to oppose the RESTRICT Act, which would greatly reduce digital privacy in the guise of protecting against “foreign adversaries.”
There’s a lot going on here. There’s some old-fashioned anti-communist red-baiting, insinuating the existence of a shadowy anti-American, anti-capitalist conspiracy in the guise of an extremely capitalist, for-profit multinational tech corporation (The Guardian). And while it’s certainly true that TikTok gathers copious amounts of data on users and can influence user behavior, that’s how social media companies generally make money. TikTok collects less user data than U.S. tech behemoths like Alphabet and Facebook (Washington Post). The U.S. government is the chief offender against digital privacy worldwide through the PRISM global spying project and Section 702 warrantless searches (Al Jazeera).
“If you think the U.S. needs a TikTok ban and not a comprehensive privacy law regulating data brokers, you don’t care about privacy, you just hate that a Chinese company has built a dominant social media platform,” says the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Eva Galperin (Salon).
In fact, the RESTRICT Act proposed to ban TikTok—a “Patriot Act 2.0” (Salon)—would dramatically reduce our privacy and give the U.S. government “unprecedented power to cut off access to services in the name of national security” (Star Tribune). Politicians are using tired anti-Asian tropes as a smoke screen to obscure the fact that U.S. tech companies and political elites are equally interested in abusing user data and increasing mass surveillance.
“These TikTok hearings are a gross spectacle. It’s an incredible display of not only soft-war mongering but unabashed racism, with accusations of ‘unAmericanism’ (of the app & CEO). I guess surveillance, data mining & child harm of Meta’s Instagram is acceptably American,” said journalist Sana Saeed (Salon).
“The possibility of this act getting passed obviously makes me scared for all of our freedom of speech. But there’s another layer of absolute sheer terror about how people are going to possibly blame all of this on Chinese Americans,” says Kim Saira (TikTok/@kimsssaira).
For a century, the “dominant American attitudes about Asian immigrants labeled them as Asiatic invasions, Oriental hordes, or a yellow peril—an unending threat and danger coming from the East with the intention of dominating and destroying the West” (Tufts Now). Asians are portrayed as sneaky, treacherous, and inherently disloyal, a subhuman economic and demographic threat (CNN).
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, a Harvard Business School graduate who previously worked at Facebook and Goldman Sachs, is not a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. He’s from Singapore, and his wife is Taiwanese American (The Straits Times). But because of his ethnicity, politicians from both sides of the aisle feel comfortable holding him personally responsible for decisions taken at the highest levels of the Chinese government in a way that former TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer, a white man, never was. As an immigrant who got an elite education and worked high-powered jobs, Chew seems like a top contender for the anti-Black “model minority” stereotype. But acceptance as a “model minority” depends on the stereotype’s use to white supremacy (PBS).
Even after the “Stop AAPI Hate” campaign trended, crude anti-Asian stereotypes are being deployed for the benefit of the most powerful and privileged people in the United States: career politicians, tech executives, and spy chiefs. We must reject these toxic narratives while denouncing the authoritarian RESTRICT Act and demanding real privacy protections from corporate and government intrusion in general, starting with the United States. The TikTok hearings are a reminder that anti-Asian hatred isn’t the exclusive property of crazed assailants on the street. It’s a long American tradition once again rearing its ugly head in the halls of power.
• Politicians are trying to greatly reduce U.S. residents’ privacy rights through legislation banning TikTok.
• Tropes painting Asian people as disloyal, subversive, and subhuman are used to criticize TikTok while ignoring equally invasive practices from U.S. tech firms.
• Anti-Asian racism has a long history in U.S. culture, society, and politics.