US' 'mafia-style tactic' on TikTok strips last layer of decency
China must respond or Trump will become more aggressive amid election: analyst
Published: Aug 04, 2020 08:33 PM Updated: Aug 04, 2020 10:33 PM

Photo: VCG

US President Donald Trump's latest move to force China-based ByteDance to sell its video-sharing app TikTok to a US company and pay the US government a share of the transaction has been derided by many in China - experts and ordinary citizens alike - as "naked robbery" using mafia-style tactics that strips the last layer of decency from the US, which claims to be free market that upholds the rule of law. 

The Chinese government on Tuesday warned the US of "consequences" if it opens the "Pandora's Box" with what a Chinese official called "political manipulation" and a crackdown on a Chinese company. 

While it followed a sweeping crackdown by the Trump administration on a growing list of Chinese technology companies, the "illegal and immoral" move against TikTok marks an unprecedented step in the legal and commercial arena and sounded a dire warning of how more Chinese businesses could be targeted by a "shameless" US administration ahead of the presidential election, Chinese experts noted.

Such a dangerous escalation warrants stern retaliation from the Chinese government, including taking a proportionate, reciprocal countermeasure on US businesses in the Chinese market, to make it clear to the US administration that its reckless behavior won't go unchecked, the experts urged, adding that without concrete countermeasures, the US president could further step up crackdowns on more Chinese firms and could even pick fights in other geopolitical areas.

The logo of TikTok application is seen on a screen in this picture illustration taken February 21, 2019. Photo: VCG

'Naked robbery'

Trump on Monday doubled down on his earlier comments of forcing TikTok to be sold to a US company, suggesting that the potential transaction must be completed by September 15 or he could ban altogether the popular video-sharing app used by around 100 million users in the US.

The US President also repeated his earlier demand that the US government should get a cut of the deal, saying that "the United States could and should get a very large percentage of that price because we're making it possible."

Trump's remarks immediately sent shock waves across Chinese social media platforms on Tuesday, where many declared the end of the US as a free market and a country ruled by the law, calling the move "naked robbery" from a Chinese company.

"This is a Chicago mafia-style way of doing things, pure and simple: Pointing a gun at your head and ordering you to make a deal," Shen Yi, a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University, told the Global Times on Thursday, "there is no point in discussing the legality of the move because there is none. It's utterly immoral."

In Beijing, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the US crackdown on TikTok  "pure political manipulation" based on "baseless" accusations. "In fact, there has been no shortage of examples of the US using its state machine to crack down on other countries' businesses. The US must stop opening the 'Pandora's Box,' or it will reap what it has sown," Wang Wenbin, the spokesperson, told a press conference.

Using claims of national security concerns and others, the Trump administration has been stepping up its crackdown on a rapidly rising number of Chinese companies, including the multi-year long campaign against Chinese telecom giant Huawei. But many in China view the move against TikTok as ultimate proof of what they call a "shameless" US administration that would do anything to serve its own interests.

"This is beyond absurdity. It has really reached below the bottom," Fang Xingdong, founder of Beijing-based technology think tank ChinaLabs, told the Global Times on Tuesday, adding that the US "has no moral high ground" left in its claims of a free market and a country upholding the rule of law. "It has shown its willingness to stop at nothing for its own interests."  

The demand made by Trump, who is known for making erratic comments, was confirmed by a statement from Microsoft on Sunday, in which the US tech giant said it was continuing talks with ByteDance on the purchase of TikTok following a conversation between its CEO Satya Nadella and Trump.

In clear appeasement to the US president, Microsoft said that "it is committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury." Microsoft, which is reportedly eyeing TikTok's younger users, did not say how those "economic benefits" will be delivered.

In Beijing, Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance, indicated that the company might have to comply with Trump's order. "Although this is unreasonable, it is part of the legal process and that as a company, we have no other option but to follow the law," Zhang wrote in an internal memo that was widely circulated online.

In a sign of the extremely difficult political situation Trump has put TikTok in, Zhang was criticized by many on Chinese social media after an earlier internal memo was published. Some pointed out that the memo stressed TikTok as a global firm and did not mention China or the Chinese government, in contrast to Microsoft's statement that thanked the US government. 

In the second memo unveiled on Tuesday afternoon, Zhang sought to address those criticisms, saying he "understands that people have very high expectations for a company that was founded by a Chinese and spreading globally, but they don't have the full and accurate information and  anger exists among the public toward the many actions from the US government."

The back-to-back memos from Zhang also showed that the company, which has been caught in the China-US strategic rivalry, was making a last-ditch effort to ease US hostility and domestic backlash. But experts said that in face of US' bullying, such an effort is naive, delusional and doomed to be futile.  

Retaliation necessary 

While some experts also criticized TikTok's response toward the US crackdown as lack of "bravery" and "full of opportunism," others say that there is not much Chinese businesses can do in the face of a powerful US government and that China must implement "stern retaliation" against the US' actions otherwise more Chinese companies will be targeted.

"If we don't retaliate, then the US will become even more aggressive, it will target more Chinese companies and it could even make a move in other areas, including Taiwan," Shen said, adding that it would be "very easy" for China to retaliate. "We can also tell a US company that it must sell its China operations or it will be banned."

Some in China called Trump's move regarding TikTok purely aimed at boosting his reelection campaign, which is troubled by a runaway COVID-19 outbreak and historic low economic data, and a stern response from China could only serve to assist Trump in the election amid deepening anti-China sentiment in the US.

But experts said that such an assessment lacks the proper understanding of how dangerous a precedent the move set for the US government and others to target Chinese companies and interests.

"It is important for the Chinese government to exert some effort to ensure that the US would pay the price for such behavior," Fang said, adding that given the intensifying crackdown on Chinese tech companies, China should treat and guard the high-tech sector as an area of "core interest." 

Some experts have also suggested that China could continue opening up the domestic financial market for foreign businesses from other areas, but bar US companies from entering until the US government halts its crackdown on Chinese companies.