China urges US to stop treating Chinese firms as security threats

Calls for ByteDance to sell TikTok or to ban the app in the US have grown louder. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING - Beijing urged the United States to stop baselessly accusing Chinese companies of threatening US national security, a day after a congressional hearing to clarify popular social media app TikTok’s relationship with the Communist Party of China.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said at a regular media briefing on Friday that the US government has repeatedly assumed that Chinese tech giant ByteDance, which owns TikTok, is guilty of posing a threat to American security – allegations that have resulted in “unreasonable oppression”.

“The US government has not provided any evidence so far to prove that TikTok threatens US national security,” she said, emphasising that Beijing will “never require companies or individuals to violate local laws to collect information and intelligence based in foreign countries for the Chinese government”.

“We urge the US to respect fair competition and to provide a non-discriminatory environment for companies from all over the world to invest and operate in,” she added.

US lawmakers on Thursday grilled TikTok’s Singaporean chief executive Chew Shou Zi for five hours with questions on issues ranging from whether China can access data of TikTok’s 150 million US users, to protecting children from harmful content on drugs and suicide.

Calls for ByteDance to sell TikTok or to ban the app in the US have grown louder as concerns rise about how Chinese tech companies operating in the US collect and use the data of users.

In 2020, former president Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok and WeChat, owned by another Chinese tech behemoth Tencent, through an executive order. President Joe Biden reversed those plans, ordering instead a security review of TikTok and WeChat, which eventually led to Thursday’s hearing.

Netizens in China ridiculed US lawmakers’ questions for Mr Chew, sharing memes and screenshots of moments they found bizarre.

“Doesn’t the US lawmaker know how the Internet works? Why is he asking Mr Chew – how does TikTok access home Wi-Fi networks?” one user said on microblogging platform Weibo, referring to Representative Richard Hudson’s question to Mr Chew on whether TikTok accesses home Wi-Fi networks, and whether it has access to other devices on the network.

They also pointed out how Representative Kat Cammack heaped accusations about TikTok’s alleged dealings with the Chinese government, but did not give Mr Chew time to respond.

“This is Huawei all over again,” posted a Weibo user. The US added Huawei to a trade blacklist in May 2019 over the Chinese tech equipment maker’s alleged ties to Beijing.

The TikTok CEO’s clean-cut look also caught the eye in China, with one Weibo user commenting that “it is clear from Mr Chew’s chiselled face that he works out and does not eat carbohydrates”.

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China’s Commerce Ministry spokesman Shu Jueting said on Thursday that Beijing will need to decide whether to approve the sale of TikTok if the US government continues to insist on the divestment.

“Selling the stake or splitting TikTok... involves technology export and must follow Chinese laws and regulations to proceed. The Chinese government will then make a decision in accordance with the law,” she said.

In a move widely seen to delay or stop the sale of TikTok following Mr Trump’s executive order, Beijing updated its technology export rules in August 2020. This means that Beijing’s approval is needed for any sale of TikTok to a company outside of China.

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