‘Forcibly taking’ ByteDance’s ‘child:’ How Chinese media sees Microsoft’s possible deal for TikTok

August 3, 2020, 9:10 AM UTC

Microsoft confirmed on Sunday it is continuing talks with Chinese tech company ByteDance Ltd to buy its popular short video app TikTok, which President Donald Trump has threatened to ban in the U.S. over national security concerns.

The possible deal for China’s social media crown jewel is not going over well in Beijing, with Chinese state-owned media decrying the move. One editorial likened TikTok’s potential sale to Microsoft to “forcibly taking the child out of ByteDance’s arms.”

TikTok has become a flashpoint in the technological cold war that’s emerging between the U.S. and China. The White House and a growing cohort of U.S. lawmakers are calling for a ban on TikTok in the U.S., claiming that the Chinese government has access to user data and has a say in the platform’s censorship practices. (TikTok denies those accusations.)

Beijing, in response to the U.S. national security review of TikTok, last week said there was no evidence for the U.S.’s security claims against the app and said the threatened ban was based on a “presumption of guilt” that ran against the tenets of the World Trade Organization.

The potential TikTok ban “is in violation of the WTO principles of openness, transparency, and non-discrimination, and it doesn’t serve the interests of the American people and companies,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Thursday.

“China’s software and apps meet people’s need and market demand, provide diversified choices, and help social media markets in all countries grow in a sound manner,” Wang said.

A Sunday editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned tabloid newspaper known for its nationalistic bent, offered a more polemic take. It argued that Washington’s threatened TikTok ban, as well as other U.S. government actions like blacklisting Chinese telecoms firm Huawei, were intended to curb the growth of Chinese tech that “challenge[s] the high-tech hegemony of the U.S.”

“[T]he U.S. is trying to solidify a high-tech world order in which it is the absolute center,” the editorial said.

The editorial mentioned the potential Microsoft purchase of TikTok, saying Trump’s threatened ban “put even more pressure on ByteDance … to negotiate with Microsoft … This is indeed the hunting and looting of TikTok by the U.S. government in conjunction with U.S. high-tech companies.”

Microsoft said CEO Satya Nadella spoke with Trump about the potential TikTok purchase, and said the company “fully appreciates the importance of addressing the President’s concerns.”

Wang, the foreign ministry representative, did not mention the potential Microsoft purchase in his Thursday remarks.

A second Global Times article, also published Sunday and written by editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, echoed the first, saying the push to ban TikTok in the U.S. was motivated by concerns that TikTok’s success threatens U.S. dominance in the tech world.

“If Microsoft acquires TikTok, U.S. elites’ concerns about TikTok’s challenge to U.S. technological hegemony can be temporarily alleviated,” Hu wrote. Hu also suggested that Trump wants to ban TikTok because the app is popular among U.S. teenagers who do not support him and who could use the app to jeopardize Trump’s chances of reelection in November.

Hu said the threatened ban represents “a serious inconsistency in traditional American values” and shows “how hypocritical the U.S. is by advocating the absolute free flow of information.” Wang, the foreign ministry spokesperson, similarly called out U.S. “hypocrisy.”

Beijing’s acrid response to TikTok’s possible acquisition by Microsoft underscores how much China treasures the app. TikTok is arguably the country’s first homegrown, internationally popular app, and the fastest-growing social media platform in the world, topping more than two billion global downloads in April.

A Microsoft purchase of TikTok would be a boon for the U.S. technology giant. “[Microsoft] 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’s Sunday statement said.

Many U.S.-owned social media sites and websites, including Google, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, are blocked in China by the mainland’s ‘Great Firewall,’ and some, including Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, have complied with Chinese government censorship requirements or created China-only versions of their sites in order to operate in China.

The Global Times editorial said China’s restrictions on Facebook and Twitter are “fundamentally different” from the potential U.S. TikTok ban, saying China’s government would allow the sites to operate in China “in accordance with Chinese laws.”