The new cold war does not take place on a wall that divides continents, but in the pockets and wallets of millions of Americans.
A congressional hearing on Thursday about the TikTok video application was the latest in a series that has revealed not only the bipartisan hostility between Washington and Beijing but also the extent of the superpower conflict in American life.
The five-hour interview with TikTok CEO Shou Chew highlighted how China is increasingly being viewed as not only a growing threat to US economic dominance and security but also as an ideologic challenge. This is similar to the Soviet Union's view of America's values, and life style.
Both sides of the aisle raised the possibility that the Chinese-owned platform could be used to gather intelligence about millions of Americans. It claims it has 150 million monthly US users. The possibility that young and developing American minds could become influenced by Chinese-made content or information, which could either suppress US principles on political freedom or cause confusion or false narratives regarding American foreign policy, was also raised repeatedly by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
These arguments were encapsulated in Washington state GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee and set a tone for the hearing.
Rodgers stated to Chew that he doubts TikTok would ever embrace American values, including freedom, human rights and innovation. "TikTok has chosen repeatedly to have more control, more surveillance and more manipulation."
"Your platform should be blocked."
Rodgers wasn't the only official to express deep suspicion about TikTok Thursday. Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, fueled speculation about the fact that the app is running out of time. The app is loved by millions of teenagers in America but is currently banned on federal government phones and other official devices throughout the West.
Blinken stated that TikTok was a national security threat and should be ended 'one way or the other', while also adding that there are 'different ways to do that.
Kevin McCarthy, the House Speaker, supported legislation that would effectively ban TikTok from the US. "I don't know why we have to give it the president the authority," McCarthy said. "I think we might be able to do that ourselves, and I'll let the House handle it," the California Republican told CNN's Manuraju.
This hearing was just the latest in a series of recent events that has made the long-awaited clash between the United States and China a concrete reality for millions.
These include the story of a Chinese spy ball that flew across US skies in February, before being shot down. After being accused by the International Criminal Court of war crimes, Chinese President Xi Jinping travelled to Moscow this week to give legitimacy to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Xi stated that he is attempting to undermine the US-led international system, which has been in place since World War II. He also said that China was ready and able to'stand guard over world order'
On Thursday, Chew was on Capitol Hill to convince legislators that TikTok is not under Chinese government control. He also wanted to show them how TikTok has attempted to prove it is protecting American users' data through Project Texas, a US-based initiative. It was clear that he didn't succeed because most lawmakers had already decided on the issue.
Wisconsin GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher is the chair of the House's new select committee on China. He stated on Thursday's CNN Primetime that the issue wasn't where data was stored. He argued that the main problem was TikTok, which was controlled by a Chinese parent company and was subject to pressure from China. Gallagher stated that they could use the app to spread disinformation, influence what Americans see and influence future elections.
Chew was not treated well by Beijing's government. The commerce ministry in Beijing stated hours before the hearing that it would strongly oppose any attempt by the US to force TikTok’s Chinese-owned parent company ByteDance to sell the app. It warned that such a move could raise questions about the viability and viability of foreign companies investing in the US. This statement reinforced the belief that TikTok was far from independent. It also highlighted their doubts regarding Chew's claim that its data collection practices were similar to those of many US internet companies.
Chew maintained that his company was an independent entity and not part of the Chinese government or Communist Party. The lawmakers denied that there was any evidence or proof supporting their claims of possible interference from Beijing.
The hearing was full of political performances, with lawmakers from both sides embracing the opportunity to show that they can be tough on China. TikTok released a statement praising the day's political grandstanding, claiming that it failed to recognize the real solutions in Project Texas and address youth safety issues productively.
Some of the legislators' hostility to China showed how opposition has become a dominant organizing principle in Washington politics and an uncommon issue that unites both sides. However, some Asian American groups worry that Washington's fierce hostility to Beijing could lead to more violence and intimidation against Asian Americans throughout the country.
"One of the geniuses at TikTok"
Washington's suspicions about TikTok's ability to protect data were reflected in the repeated exchanges between Chew, the House committee, and Chew over Project Texas. This, if anything seemed to make lawmakers more skeptical than before. Chew often failed to adequately assure lawmakers that the Chinese government would not access user data in the future, despite claiming it would be stored on American soil.
"I haven't seen any evidence that the Chinese government has that access; they have never asked me, we have not given it," Chew stated at one point. This caused Anna Eshoo, a Democratic Representative from California, to comment, "I don't believe that you have done or said anything to convince us."
Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, who is the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, explained why Washington considers TikTok a threat.
TikTok learns from its users. It learns from you every time you visit the site. Are you willing to have all this information eventually residing under the Communist Party of China's guise? Warner spoke on CNN This Morning.
"Number two," this propaganda machine is powerful if used in that way. This is an amazing misinformation and disinformation machine. While I don't think they are doing it now, there is the potential for President Xi of China to invade Taiwan. People all over the globe, not just Americans, start to see videos that reinforce that message. This propaganda tool makes any other option seem implausible.
Washington's growing concerns about China’s intelligence capabilities are a frequent topic. They were especially relevant to TikTok and the spy balloon drama.
Trudeau spoke to CNN's Paula Newton about the Chinese government's use of any information and data it has access to in an interview that took place on Thursday. "And we have also seen that Chinese-owned or Chinese-directed companies are very answerable to China's Communist Party of China," Trudeau said.
Trudeau's comments highlight why TikTok may soon run out of time in the US, at least as part a larger Chinese company. While there may be some concerns about the app's addictive properties and data security, it wouldn't have to fight the perception that it is a potential threat to the US.
As the hearing on Thursday showed, TikTok has become caught up in geopolitical forces that exist between the US (China) and the US. These forces are much larger than its large consumer base. This raises questions that it is unable to answer.