TikTok has just become a legitimatized “national security risk”, according to new investigations conducted by the U.S. surveillance state. It’s difficult to believe a simple app platform for makeup, music, and normie memes could become a political target, yet recent Chinese operations have sparked western concerns over the handling of personal data, foreign espionage, and government censorship. Most recently, the banning of a makeup artist who spoke up against the current detainment of Muslims.
It all started with an innocent teenage girl, paired with only a pink eyelash curler and a bottle of Mascara, urging her audience to put down their products to just “use your phone that you’re using right now to search up what’s happening in China, how they’re getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there. It’s a modern holocaust.” The 40-second clips were originally viewed by more than 500k people at the time, ultimately resulting in Feroza Aziz’s account suspension despite reports of disassociation with the Chinese state. And gee, what an absolute lie that was.
In last week’s report from Reuters, TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance announced their company would segregate the app’s operations from the rest of its owned businesses, which was seen only as an attempt to convince officials for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) their concerns over national security and censorship overreach were unfounded. Josh Gartner, a spokesperson for ByteDance, did very little to quell these concerns, falsely accusing her of “terrorist content” promotion. “If she tries to use the device that she used last time,” Gartner said in a statement for The New York Times, “she will probably have a problem.”
It’s important to note that Aziz is only a 17-year-old Muslim high school student from New Jersey, living without any association with terrorist groups or their fringe ideologies. The only provided example of such “terrorist content”, unrelated to her support for Chinese Muslims, is a joke video where she showed a picture of Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s dead former leader, as the man she wanted to marry when she grows up. Anyone with half a brain would recognize the gag for what it is. If you follow the letter of TikTok’s content policies without any regard for context, she already had a strike for her terrorist sympathies. Legitimate support for the Muslim detainees, considered either terrorists and dissidents under the watchful eye of the Chinese state, could be considered another strike against her name.
In October, the Trump administration issued a blacklist against 28 Chinese organizations with direct links to the government’s human rights violations against the Muslim population of Xinjiang. These included companies such as SenseTime, Megvii, Yitu, Hikvision and Dahua Technology, which are among the most successful names in facial recognition and artificial intelligence technology. ByteDance was not among their list, though it is subject to a new CFIUS investigation for “foreign investments in sensitive technologies” and cracking down on pervasive “Chinese tech mergers”, not the censorship of pro-Muslim and pro-Hong Kong videos. While this should be changed immediately, the committee will determine whether TikTok can “prove its independence from ByteDance” (and ultimately the Chinese government) without harming U.S. consumers, which may force their hand on the issue.
These efforts have come over a year since the original U.N. report which revealed China’s camps against the Uighur population — an ethnically Muslim minority in the country’s western provinces. The investigation found multiple instances of mandatory propaganda studies, the forced feeding and drinking of known haram substances such as pork and beer, waterboard torture for government insubordination, as well as live organ harvesting against the consent of their subjects. The report indicates detainment is made without a trial, charges, and sentencing is anywhere between a year to indefinite. Whatever the government says goes, of course.
In response to the blacklist, China signaled further backlash against the Trump administration. The government’s foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, denied the program even exists, ignoring over a million missing Chinese citizens believed to be held in captivity or dead. In October, Shuang simply told reporters to “stay tuned” on further actions, playing his best suspenseful supervillain hiding behind curtains and smoke. “We urge the U.S. side to immediately correct its mistake, withdraw the relevant decision and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” Geng said. “China will continue to take firm and forceful measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.”
The administration, known for their own discriminatory and hostile actions against Muslim populations, at least made the appearance of supporting basic human rights standards for Muslims in the region. “The U.S. government and Department of Commerce cannot and will not tolerate the brutal suppression of ethnic minorities within China,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement. “This action will ensure that our technologies, fostered in an environment of individual liberty and free enterprise, are not used to repress defenseless minority populations.” Reports later questioned whether this posturing was simply “leverage” in their impending trade war with China. The secretary, of course, declined to answer questions.
In a follow-up report from Business Insider, the blacklist could ultimately be subverted through common law loopholes where they can operate through subsidiary companies, which is almost identical to the issues regarding TikTok and ByteDance. Right now, the US government is determining whether a Chinese-owned company is independent of its Chinese owners. This should sound absurd on its face, especially given the sensitive nature of both Muslim detainment and Hong Kong independence, yet we’re still arguing the very basics of economic operations, state propaganda, and the real-world effects of users being silenced by industry from the digital public square.
Lawmakers have also been too slow to step-up against Chinese overreach. Yes, there were two letters calling out the behaviour, both of signed by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Reps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Tom Malinowski (D-NHJ) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI), yet haven’t addressed the issues head-on. The politicians can “express… strong concern about censorship of apps, including a prominent app used by protestors in Hong Kong, at the request of the Chinese government” and condemn Activision Blizzard’s punishment of Ng ‘Blitzchung’ Wai Chung, the competitive gamer who was punished by the company simply for using “one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions”, but the marketplace of rhetoric is not a solution, it’s a virtue signal.
Letters, blacklists, and rhetoric can show good intent, yet mean little for those fighting against these state-corporate powers. As I wrote months ago, political theater over human rights just begs the question — where is the actual policy? Where is the legal mandate? And how long before promises turn into lawful actions? Are the people to endure endless struggle over their natural rights and liberation? Or will the government adhere to its own advice of placing values over profits? This remains to be seen, or rather unseen if these trend of international censorship continues to take root.