TikTok's enemy is Trump, not SAR

Editorial | Mary Ma 10 Jul 2020

Video-sharing social media platform TikTok's announcement that it was withdrawing from Hong Kong without even a blink was full of irony.

While cynics might have predicted an exodus of international companies following Beijing's passage of a tailormade national security law for the SAR, nobody would have expected a Chinese company to lead the way.

TikTok's foreign peers, led by Facebook, Google and Twitter, are still operating here even though they have all pledged not to cooperate with the Hong Kong government to release user data even if asked to do so under the security law.

TikTok's decision was indicative of a dilemma that has become almost standard for all mainland companies doing business outside China.

Although TikTok insists it is independent of its Beijing-based parent company Bytedance and has never passed any user information to mainland authorities, China critics in the West have not been receptive to the narrative.

If the company continues to run the global version of Douyin - the mainland edition of TikTok - in Hong Kong, it will inevitably hit a wall.

Should it follow the example of its industry counterparts and refuse to hand over user data to the SAR government and embarrass Beijing? Or should it cooperate with security officers to give them users' information despite the certainty of an international backlash?

As for TikTok, it wasn't a difficult decision at all - particularly as it is facing a crackdown threat by the Trump administration. As TikTok had only 150,000 users in Hong Kong as of last September, the SAR is far too small to justify aggravating the risk when the video-sharing media service provider is already facing a grave crisis.

After the app was banned in India due to tension at the border with China, TikTok may also be blocked in the United States and Australia for whatever reasons these governments may find convenient to use.

TikTok may be generous to let SAR users change to Douyin, but I'm not sure how reassuring this alternative would be to Hongkongers who are used to living freely without the restriction of the firewall that mainlanders are accustomed to.

The local social media environment is bound to change. There are also rules and regulations in Europe in respect of social media content, but none are as all-encompassing as in China which has stringent restrictions on what its nationals can and cannot see and read.

Hong Kong has become a political battlefield and it can only be imagined that stricter control will be imposed over time after the security mechanism becomes fully established and operational in the SAR.

The decision by Facebook, Google, Twitter and their likes to suspend the processing of requests for user data from Hong Kong authorities was merely a stop-gap step by the tech giants.

These companies are still trying to understand their local situation under the newly imposed security law and what it means to their lucrative business.

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