The popular Chinese-owned app is enabling Beijing to collect data on people nearly everywhere. Not only can such platforms track people’s preferences and whereabouts, but they give the Chinese government control over a powerful tool for shaping people’s worldview.
By Aynne Kokas
Since launching in 2016, the video-sharing app TikTok has become one of the world’s most popular social-media platforms. Owned by the Chinese tech firm ByteDance, TikTok surpassed one-billion active global users in 2021. But as those users post and watch short videos, behind the scenes TikTok is meticulously collecting data on them, tracking their preferences and online activities. The rapid global expansion of Chinese tech firms such as ByteDance has created a regulatory conundrum for countries worldwide. From Australia and Japan to India and Pakistan to the United States, governments have been grappling with the expanding scope of China’s digital regulations, which have set the stage for Beijing’s global collection of data. As data traverses borders without explicit consent, the privacy of individuals, organizations, and even government bodies is at risk, posing a potential threat to national security.
Recent reports have raised concerns that Chinese tech firms can track the location of specific citizens, that these firms are not transparent about who has access to their data (including, for example, Chinese government agencies), and that the influence of foreign governments over digital communications platforms like TikTok, where 30 percent of people under the age of thirty get their news, can influence everything from perceptions about international events to domestic elections. TikTok has denied these allegations, but it hasn’t disproved them. For example, TikTok claims not to have the capability to track users’ locations, yet its terms of service requires users to consent to exactly that.
Under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Beijing has been broadening its definition of national security and enacting far-reaching data regulations, thereby establishing a basis in Chinese law for accessing incredible amounts of data about people all over the world. In 2019, under Beijing’s direction, the Hong Kong government proposed a bill that would have allowed Hongkongers to be extradited and tried in China, sparking massive protests. In response, Beijing cracked down harder. The 2020 Hong Kong National Security Law set the stage for Beijing’s efforts to criminalize national-security violations (including those related to user data) and to hold all parties liable for criminal and civil transgressions—even those occurring outside China.
The extraterritorial framing of national-security oversight allows Beijing to access data gathered by tech platforms anywhere. The CCP regime is shaping global data regulations both by establishing national standards that govern Chinese firms operating abroad and through its influence in multilateral standard-setting bodies such as the International Organization for Standardization. China’s 2021 Data Security Law allows the government to conduct “national security audits” of corporations’ data, giving Beijing access to any corporate data generated in China or by Chinese firms operating abroad. Beijing is making the rules in a way that will allow it to use tech platforms (including social-media and e-commerce platforms) to gather global data—a practice I call “data trafficking,” the erosion of sovereignty through the digital trade of goods and services—for purposes of “national security,” a term which the Chinese government has chosen to keep vague in data-protection laws. Indeed, in China today, “national security” includes nearly everything.
Beijing’s Digital Inroads
China’s Digital Silk Road (the tech side of the Belt and Road Initiative), paired with the global expansion of Chinese tech firms, allows the CCP regime to access the data of people everywhere. The Digital Silk Road and other transnational efforts drive tech investment in countries not just with weak tech infrastructure but also with weak governance models. As Matthew Erie and Thomas Streinz wrote in 2021, a “push-pull” dynamic—a combination of China’s push for data sovereignty and the demand for Chinese investment—shapes Beijing’s ability to govern digital platforms abroad: China finances or builds digital infrastructure in emerging markets and Chinese firms provide technology services, while the Chinese state retains control over user data through extraterritorial regulations that China imposes on those countries.
As Beijing continues to cast an ever-wider net for collecting user data, it benefits from Chinese-owned apps that are transnational in scope and scale, such as ByteDance’s TikTok, Tencent’s WeChat, and Alibaba’s AliPay. Beijing has intentionally promoted the growth of China’s tech sector through state-led investment plans. The Chinese government has prioritized becoming self-sufficient in the tech sector, as well as enhancing its influence globally, through policy frameworks such as Xi’s “community of common destiny” and the “Global Security Initiative.” As a result, Chinese data-gathering tools and data-oversight practices are becoming the de facto international tools and practices.
Domestically, the Chinese government relies heavily on digital tools for governance, service delivery, and internal security, and its regulations offer a global model for Chinese-led governance of civic data. Often described collectively as the “social-credit system,” this governance model comprises a network of financial tools, smart-city management practices, and citizen-surveillance apps. For example, Beijing pioneered the so-called health codes (jiankangma)—essentially QR codes linked to citizen data and managed via WeChat—to respond to the pandemic. The jiankangma were created to track health and population movement but have served as a foundation for tracking Chinese citizens. In my book Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty, I call the information gathered from such efforts China’s “national data corpus.” This body of user data enhances the government’s population-tracking initiatives and the development of new artificial intelligence (AI)–driven municipal-management tools while also creating a “national body” grounded in data.
Although China developed the jiankangma as a tool to limit covid exposures and thus enable the economy to keep running, that same tool now also functions as a means of social control—one that Beijing can sell to other governments. It has already exported surveillance infrastructure to countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere.
Large transnational datasets are also essential for developing commercial AI-driven platforms and other key technologies. Digital platforms such as TikTok and WeChat play an essential role in helping Beijing enhance its control over data governed outside China. Yet numerous and diverse commercial technologies rely on the very same user-surveillance and data-analytics tools that TikTok and WeChat use. The difference isn’t how China-based companies acquire data but what they do with it. Firms whose parent companies are based in China or that have large business units that depend on being able to operate inside China enjoy far less autonomy with respect to how they respond to government data requests and oversight, and that will not change.
Taming China’s Tech
The information gleaned from China-based tech platforms is helping the country to build key technologies of the future—from autonomous vehicles to precision medicine to tools of war. Beijing hopes these technologies will improve society and tighten internal security while also giving it an economic, strategic, and even military edge internationally. Firms like Tencent, the parent company of WeChat and owner of gaming juggernaut Riot Games, is not just an entertainment firm. It has also committed to China’s military “intelligentization,” or push for AI-enabled warfare. Communications and gaming platforms—often owned by lucrative tech firms that infuse their operations with capital and talent—rest on multiuse technologies that, when improved in the private sector, can also enhance military capabilities.
What does all this mean for the world’s democracies? Analysts have rightly argued that tech platforms have outsized influence in developed democracies, especially when spreading election-related misinformation and disinformation. China’s digital-governance practices demonstrate the distinctive ways in which popular commercial platforms such as TikTok and WeChat serve as critical communications channels that, under Beijing’s oversight, can shape the discourse in democracies. Moreover, such platforms offer tools to model everything from population movement to biometrics. Although platforms based in democracies have this same capacity, there is a key difference: Whereas Google and Facebook can simply exit any market, Tencent and ByteDance rely on the Chinese government for their very existence and must therefore comply with Beijing’s demands. As such, a key strategy for protecting democracies from data trafficking is through the development of robust national data-security regulations that protect user data and strategic algorithms from being exported without controls. Japan, South Korea, and the EU have already implemented user-data protections. Other democracies should follow suit. China, meanwhile, fully recognizes the strategic importance of algorithms, including TikTok’s, and has made certain that they are subject to export control.
China’s increasingly expansive digital landscape has generated a system that presents a powerful challenge to democracies worldwide. The country’s Data Security Law, Cybersecurity Law, and Hong Kong National Security Law are part of a legal framework through which the Chinese government can pressure Chinese and international firms to share user data, particularly in countries lacking robust data protections.
Few governments have a clear, sustainable domestic strategy for managing data-sharing among users, platforms, and national governments, let alone internationally. Such regulations can be unwieldy and ineffectual, particularly if they do not operate internationally. TikTok, for example, stores its international data in the United States and Singapore, but without clear cooperation between these two countries, it is difficult to track TikTok’s data-management practices. Like-minded governments should therefore work together to establish basic data-transfer agreements (as Japan and the EU have) that would establish guidelines for how companies handle cross-border user-data transfers. Democracies must ensure that they have robust national data-protection regulations. In some countries, this would require reprioritizing national security over corporate growth. When it comes to regulating global tech firms, the financial stakes are lower for tech importers such as the EU and Australia than for the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Finally, wealthy countries must help less wealthy countries to develop the technical infrastructure needed for digital oversight. Without such policies, democracies around the world are leaving the door open for Beijing to use their data against them.
Aynne Kokas is associate professor of media studies, the C.K. Yen Chair at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, and the director of the University of Virginia East Asia Center. She is the author of the new book Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty (2022) and Hollywood Made in China (2017).
More from the Journal of Democracy:
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The Future of Platform Power: Quarantining Misinformation
Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy
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