Crossroads Asia

TikTok’s Rocky Road in Central Asia

Recent Features

Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

TikTok’s Rocky Road in Central Asia

TikTok has faced pressure across Central Asia, with governments often citing the protection of children to justify restriction. 

TikTok’s Rocky Road in Central Asia
Credit: Depositphotos

On the sidelines of Majilis session on April 22, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Culture and Information Aida Balaeva said the country should consider blocking access to TikTok, a video-driven social media platform owned by Chinese company ByteDance that has come under scrutiny in many markets for myriad reasons. 

“In my opinion, I say as a minister, it needs to be considered,” Balaeva said, pointing to worries about what children see in the app (she mentioned specifically “swear words” and people acting as “almost fortune tellers”). 

“Not all measures are popular, not all measures may be liked, but, nevertheless, our task is to maintain stability, unity,” she said. Balaeva noted that “when neighboring states and other states take such measures, we also need [to] study [it].”

TikTok has faced pressure across Central Asia, with government often citing the protection of children to justify restrictions. Users, and freedom of speech advocates, however, complain that the “protection of children” argument is merely a convenient excuse for censorship.

Back in August 2023, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Culture had requested the Ministry of Digital Development block the app, claiming that it “negatively affects the mental development and health of children.” 

“It should be noted that TikTok engages users in a virtual realm of brief clips, and subsequent to viewing these clips, teenagers attempt to replicate certain actions depicted in these clips, some of which endanger their lives,” the Culture Ministry said in a statement posted to Facebook.

The app remained accessible. But earlier this month, Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB or SCNS) asked the country’s communications regulator to restrict access to TikTok – and on April 18 Kyrgyz media reported that many users were unable to access the app without a VPN. The GKNB had determined that TokTok harms “the health of children, their intellectual, mental, spiritual, and moral development.” 

In neighboring Uzbekistan, there has been a lengthy back and forth with TikTok, among other social media platforms. In December 2021, after a five-month ban, TikTok became accessible again without a VPN in Uzbekistan. But a few months later, the platform was again in the crosshairs. The Adolat party – the third-largest in parliament – complained in February 2022 about a video that had circulated of a young man kicking an older man in the face, apparently filmed in Samarkand. The party complained that TikTok served as a tempting “golden bridge” to fame and “poisons the minds of young people who are hungry for blind popularity.” 

Later in 2022, when Uzbekistan’s Information and Mass Media Agency announced that Twitter (now known as X), WeChat, and Vkontakte had been unblocked, TikTok remained restricted, with the agency noting ongoing discussions with the company. At the time, the blocking of various social media apps was linked to a data localization law signed in January 2021, which mandated that the personal data of Uzbekistan’s citizens be processed and stored “on technical means physically located on the territory of Uzbekistan.” 

In October 2022, TikTok was registered to pay taxes in Uzbekistan but reported at the time that it remain restricted. “Since July 2, 2021, the company has been included in the register of violators of the rights of personal data subjects,” reported.

TikTok has been under increasing scrutiny in recent years, in part due to its astronomical rise in popularity and connections – both perceived and real – to the Chinese government. Notably, Central Asian efforts to restrict or ban the app have not yielded the fiery backlash that U.S. efforts have. 

Last month, when the US. House of Representatives passed a bill to force the sale of TikTok to a non-Chinese entity – passed by the Senate and signed into law this week – Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called it “bullying behavior.”

“If the pretext of national security can be used to suppress excellent companies from other countries arbitrarily, there is no fairness or justice to speak of,” he said – an ironic statement, given the vast list of foreign websites and social media companies blocked by China’s Great Firewall. These include Google, Facebook, Snapchat, the New York Times, the BBC, The Diplomat, and many others from countries around the world. Many of these restrictions, such as The Diplomat’s blocking, are unexplained and there is no avenue for appeal.

India was subject to similarly fiery rhetoric in the wake of its 2020 decision to block TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps; but when Pakistan – China’s “all-weather” friend – engaged in temporary bans of the app, Beijing is quiet.

China is unlikely to accuse Central Asian countries of “bullying behavior” for blocking or banning TikTok. And at the same time, Western nations flirting with the idea of their own bans (or in the case of the U.S. actively pursuing such policies) are likely to complain about rising authoritarianism and censorship in the region.