The Debate

Reciprocal Access: How to Deal with TikTok and Other Chinese Apps Fairly and Democratically

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The Debate | Opinion

Reciprocal Access: How to Deal with TikTok and Other Chinese Apps Fairly and Democratically

Liberal democracies should restrict TikTok and other Chinese apps until China allows foreign platforms equal and fair access to the Chinese digital market.

Reciprocal Access: How to Deal with TikTok and Other Chinese Apps Fairly and Democratically
Credit: Depositphotos

As an Asia-focused tech and human rights journalist, I’ve found the TikTok debate has become far too polarized. There only seem to be two options: one, unilaterally ban or force a sale of TikTok, or allow it unfettered access to users in democracies around the world. 

To me, the idea of any democratic government essentially censoring an app or platform for political reasons is deeply worrying and hypocritical. But I’ve also covered and seen firsthand the growth of state-led disinformation campaigns, and I agree with TikTok critics that there are genuine national security and privacy concerns about how the Chinese government can force companies to provide data or access to platforms for potentially malicious purposes. 

What if there was another option? Is there a way to block TikTok for economic, not political, reasons while preserving democratic values and also restoring the potential of the internet as a force for sharing information across borders?

There is. Liberal democracies should restrict TikTok and other Chinese apps like WeChat and Weibo from accessing their digital markets until China allows foreign platforms like Japan’s LINE, Sweden’s Spotify, or the United States’ Facebook equal and fair access to the Chinese digital market.

This approach has one clear benefit over a block or forced sale – it is based on the idea that countries have the right to control trade flows in and out of their national economies. Is it a well-accepted global norm that trade in physical goods and services relies on countries providing fair access to each others markets. If they don’t provide that access, then they will face repercussions. 

There is ample precedent for this type of action. The United States has regularly restricted the ability of foreign countries and companies to sell goods and services within its borders. One famous example is restrictions on Japanese automobile imports in the 1980s, which led to companies like Toyota and Honda setting up factories in the United States. China, too, has regularly been subject to import controls or tariffs due to unfair trade practices, but mostly for goods far less sexy than TikTok, like aluminum foil or auto parts.

More recently, the U.S. has been blocking imports of goods such as solar panels, cotton, and tomatoes from China’s Xinjiang region due to concerns about forced labor, moves that have broad, bipartisan support and have received little backlash domestically. 

Unfortunately, the main global trading regimes, such as the World Trade Organization, were set up before the digital economy grew and lack effective mechanisms to deal with countries like China blocking platforms via its Great Firewall. Amazingly, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was the first global trade regime to include provisions on digital trade. It was, of course, abandoned by the Trump administration, the same one that initially proposed banning TikTok back in 2020 (now Donald Trump no longer supports a ban).

For now, one country, like the United States, could act on its own, ideally through a policy framework that sets clear guidelines on what measures foreign governments – including China’s – need to meet in order to allow apps like TikTok to access the U.S. digital market.

While TikTok, being the Chinese app with the largest user base globally, would be the most impacted by reciprocity provisions, other Chinese apps would also be affected – such as WeChat and Weibo, which are used mostly by Chinese speakers. Both have been implicated in the spreading of pro-China disinformation around elections in Australia and Canada.

Another benefit of this approach is that it shifts the impetus for action to the Chinese government, and shines a light on their blocking of so many foreign apps, social media platforms, and news outlets – including The Diplomat – without any legal notification or appeal process. 

Imagine Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaking to the National People’s Congress against the Great Firewall, the way TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew spoke against a possible ban in remarks to a congressional panel in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. TikTok even filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government against Trump-era restrictions, an option that does not exist for American companies in China. Foreign platforms, whether they’re giant for-profits like Google or small non-profits like Signal, have no legal recourse to counter being blocked in China. 

In the past, there was not much the United States could do to counter the Great Firewall. Now, with TikTok and the growth of Chinese platforms and digital companies globally, we have a lever to finally push for action. Quite simply, if China wants their companies like ByteDance, TikTok’s parent, to access the American market, they need to allow Google, Facebook, Snapchat, and others to access the Chinese market. 

Ideally, this reciprocity would go beyond massive tech platforms. Outlets like the New York Times and BBC, information platforms like Wikipedia, secure messaging apps like Signal, even open-source encryption or Virtual Private Network (VPN) apps are also blocked. Many of those platforms are used to share information. Why should China be able to spread its message via TikTok – not to mention Chinese state media outlets, which are freely accessible in liberal democracies worldwide – but journalists, activists, and dissidents are prohibited from doing the same in China?

The United States could also encourage other countries that have seen their companies blocked by the Great Firewall, like Sweden (Spotify), South Korea (Kakao), or Japan (LINE), to embrace similar legislation, or even a new global digital trade regime. It could perhaps be more focused than the all-encompassing TPP, and thus more politically feasible.

The alternative would be to do what India did in 2020, when it unilaterally blocked TikTok and other Chinese apps, like WeChat, for political purposes. However, India has also hampered foreign NGOs like Amnesty International, arrested journalists, and attempted to block content from being shared on Twitter and Facebook. Blocking TikTok was thus a sign that India was becoming more like China – more authoritarian, less open, and less democratic. This is not the way to counter TikTok’s or China’s rise.

Reciprocity is a better path forward. It, of course, does not address all the concerns with TikTok or other data-harvesting platforms. I still would like to see user-focused data privacy laws that would apply to everyone – Google, Facebook, and TikTok – equally. At the same time, data privacy is not enough when dealing with a platform that has clear ties to a ruthless authoritarian regime. 

There’s a potentially broader ethical impact of pushing for reciprocity. I remember when the internet was seen as a democratizing, liberal force for good, a driver of anti-government protest movements in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere. China’s Great Firewall and the rise of state-led disinformation mean that, now, many fear we’ve entered an age of digital authoritarianism, where governments use the power of technology to control people and the information we consume. 

Banning TikTok would merely bring that worrying trend to the United States. But mandating reciprocity could help restore the potential of the internet as a force for good – and, for once, make China pay an economic cost for limiting its citizens access to information. Hopefully, that is something that politicians, digital rights advocates, and journalists can all agree on.