TikTok and WeChat: Key facts on Chinese apps in the eye of the storm

An explainer on two of the most popular Chinese apps, TikTok and WeChat, and how they found themselves in the eye of the US-China storm.

Chinese Apps

The United States has fired a new salvo in its rivalry with China, ordering sweeping restrictions against Chinese-owned social media apps TikTok and WeChat.

Here are some key facts about the platforms:

What is WeChat? 

WeChat, known as “weixin” or micro-message in Chinese, belongs to tech giant Tencent and has grown to become ubiquitous in daily life across China since its 2011 launch.

It has more than a billion monthly users and is a “super app” used for everything from messaging to ride-hailing and mobile payments, while also serving as a social media platform.

Tencent surpassed Facebook’s net worth after it became the first Asian firm to be valued at more than $500 billion in 2017.

The Hong Kong-listed company now has a market capitalisation of HK$5.32 trillion ($686 billion), compared with Facebook’s $756 billion.

Read more: TikTok users face Trump head-on in wake of probable ban

While WeChat is available in various languages, its main user base is in mainland China, where potential rivals such as Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service are barred from competing.

It is also a widely used among the Chinese diaspora, and foreigners doing business in the country, to keep in touch with people there.

Tencent has shares in many American companies, including electric-car maker Tesla, social media company Snap, and top games developers such as Riot Games, Epic Games and Activision Blizzard.

Is there an intrusion of privacy for WeChat users?

WeChat has been dogged by privacy concerns.

The platform censors content for all users registered with Chinese phone numbers, even if they go abroad or switch to an international number, according to a University of Toronto study from 2016.

Read more: US ‘looking at’ banning TikTok and other Chinese apps: Pompeo

Another report from the same university in May said accounts not registered in China were also subject to “pervasive content surveillance”.

Chinese authorities routinely censor online content and block Western websites such as Facebook, Twitter and the New York Times.

WeChat’s privacy policy says the platform only shares user information “where necessary” with governments and law enforcement agencies.

TikTok: What exactly is the “King of Chinese Apps”?

TikTok features kaleidoscopic feeds of short user-made videos of anything from hair-dye tutorials to choreographed dance routines.

It belongs to Chinese tech firm ByteDance and targets the international market while Douyin, a domestic version of the platform, caters exclusively to Chinese users.

Read more: Why banning TikTok takes away hope for rural communities

TikTok has been downloaded more than 2 billion times since its 2017 launch, according to data from US-based research agency SensorTower.

The app is most popular among teenagers but has found fresh popularity during coronavirus lockdowns around the world as adults look for new ways to pass the time.

It attracted huge followings in the United States, Indonesia and other countries, but it recently became one of 59 Chinese mobile apps banned by India over national security and privacy concerns.

Chinese apps: are they distancing from China?

TikTok has in recent months sought to distance itself from its Chinese owners. It appointed former Disney executive Kevin Mayer, an American, as its new chief executive in May.

It also withdrew from Hong Kong shortly after China imposed a new security law on the city that gave police fresh powers to censor the internet — a move that analysts said was an effort to avoid the suggestion it was a Chinese-controlled company.

Read more: TikTok to be another casualty in US-China Cold War

But the app has nonetheless been accused of privacy breaches.

Trump previously set a deadline of mid-September for TikTok to be acquired by a US firm or be banned in the US.

Microsoft has expanded its talks on TikTok to a potential deal that would include buying the global operations of the fast-growing app, the Financial Times reported Thursday.

Trump looking at banning Chinese apps

Earlier, it was revealed that President Donald Trump is days away from announcing strong action against the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok to protect US national security according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Trump has been talking about the TikTok ban for weeks now. It is likely given the nipping relations that Mr.Pompeo is right and President Trump is set to ban TikTok in the upcoming days.

He said TikTok and other Chinese software companies operating in the US, such as WeChat, feed personal data on American citizens directly to the Chinese Communist Party.
For years the US has put up with this because Americans felt “we’re having fun with it,” Pompeo said.

Read more: Should TikTok be banned in Pakistan?

“President Trump has said, ‘Enough,’ and we’re going to fix it,” Pompeo told Fox News.
“And so he will take action in the coming days with respect to a broad array of national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist Party,” he added.

Pompeo and Trump both have been giving dire warnings about the apps and about the increasing presence of China in the digital space.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

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