WASHINGTON, DC - U.S. President Donald Trump is banning the use of the TikTok app, widely used by Americans particularly teenagers, because of China's perceived role in the pandemic, which he routinely describes as the 'China flu,' or more recently the 'China plague.'
How depriving 100 million young Americans from using the TikTok app, putting 1,500 U.S.-based TikTok employees out of work, and financially impacting the Chinese tech firm ByteDance's shareholders, who own TikTok, will punish China is unclear.
China's role in the Covid-19 pandemic is being examined by an international investigatory body as part of an overall investigation into how and where the virus originated. The investigation is supported by both the United States and China.
The president however, with an election looming in 3 months, is pushing against China, with the TikiTok ban echoing 'a broader, anti-China stance within the Republican Party ahead of the November elections,' according to a Washington Post report published on Sunday.
"China has long been the United States' greatest geopolitical foe and a focus of derision in Rust Belt states that were decimated by the hollowing out of our manufacturing base," Cliff Sims, a former Trump White House aide told the 'Post. "Trump capitalized on this in 2016."
"Now unfavorable views toward China are at an all-time high because of Covid-19. So when you combine the geopolitical realities with the domestic politics, it makes perfect sense for the president to continue ratcheting up the rhetoric and making moves to confront China head-on," Sims said.
The policy does not seem to be restricted to the president, his supporters in the Congress, particularly the Senate, and in the wider Republican party seem to be on board too.
"We write to raise concerns about TikTok, the Chinese social-media service, which could enable the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to engage in influence operations against the United States, including operations designed to interfere with our elections," a number of Republican senators including Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Ted Cruz (Tex.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) said this week in a letter to administration officials.
While President Trump appears to have finally decided on Friday night that the TikTok ban will go ahead, he had been flip-flopping on the issue most of the day.
Asked on Friday before boarding Marine One whether a decision on TikTok would come that day, Mr Trump replied: "We're looking at TikTok. We may be banning TikTok. We may be doing some other things. There are a couple of options. But a lot of things are happening, so we'll see what happens. But we are looking at a lot of alternatives with respect to TikTok."
The alternatives it has emerged included a possible sale to another party such as Microsoft.
Regardless, by Friday night while on board Air Force One after a trip to Florida, the president told reporters: "As far as TikTok is concerned, we're banning them from the United States."
The president went on to say he did not favor a sale of TikTok to another party.
The move comes at a time when the Trump administration is also confronting Huawei - China and the world's, largest smartphone maker - with a raft of measures. Mr Trump, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have accused Huawei of spying on U.S. citizens and stealing their data.
The proposed shutdown of the TikTok platform, which has still not been officially announced as of Sunday, comes during a week in which the heads of the world's four largest technology companies appeared before Congress.
Rep. Greg Steube asked the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, "Do you believe that the Chinese government steals technology from U.S. companies?"
Only one of the 4, Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, said that he did, but did not reference any instances or experience with his company.
"I think it's well documented that the Chinese government steals technology from American companies," Zuckerberg told the hearing.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon, the world's richest man, however had a contrary view. I've "heard many reports of that," though he added that "I haven't seen it personally," according to a CNN report.
The Apple chief Tim Cook, in his reply to the question, said. "I know of no case [of] ours where it occurred ... I can only speak to firsthand knowledge."
Google CEO Sundar Pichai replied: "I have no firsthand knowledge of any information stolen from Google in this regard." (Pichai later corrected his answer, acknowledging a China-linked cyberattack on Google in 2009 in which the company said some of its intellectual property was stolen).
When Steube followed up his question about Chinese interference, asking the CEOs what recommendations they could make to Congress to "better protect" American companies from "aggression and government intervention abroad" in places such as China and Europe, the four CEOs declined to answer. After the question was asked, none of the four replied. Fifteen seconds later Steube yielded his time.
Zuckerberg in his testimony sounded an ominous note. "If you look at where the top technology companies come from, a decade ago the vast majority were American," he said. "Today, almost half are Chinese."
U.S. technology companies will likely be the only beneficiary of the elimination of TikTok from U.S. shores.
"Without TikTok, American advertisers would again be left with few choices. Competition would dry up and so too will an outlet for America's creative energy. We are not political, we do not accept political advertising and have no agenda, our only objective is to remain a vibrant, dynamic platform for everyone to enjoy. Consumers can only benefit from the growth of healthy, successful platforms like TikTok and we will fight to continue to give American creators, users and brands an entertaining outlet for many years to come," the platform's CEO Kevin Mayer said on Wednesday in a blog.
Mark Zuckerberg when asked about the app in his appearance before Congress the same day, described TikTok as one of Facebook's main competitors.
Not for long, it seems.
(Photo credit: AP | Pablo Martinez Monsivais).