As the Biden administration recalibrates its policies toward China, it should carefully balance economic and security interests in reviewing Chinese mobile applications, such as TikTok and WeChat. Instead of banning Chinese apps altogether, the Biden administration should mitigate the risks that individual Chinese apps pose to U.S. national security considerations.
In August, the Trump administration expressed concerns about the Chinese government’s acquiring sensitive data on American citizens through TikTok. Consequently, the Trump administration issued two executive orders banning TikTok and WeChat transactions in U.S. app stores and ordered ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to “divest itself from TikTok within 90 days.” In February, the Biden administration asked the U.S. Court of Appeals of the D.C. Circuit and the Ninth Circuit to pause “legal action against TikTok and WeChat,” respectively, as the administration reviews whether Chinese apps should be allowed to continue operating in U.S. markets.
Instead of banning TikTok and WeChat altogether, the Biden administration should instead seek to mitigate their risks. To this end, the administration must first distinguish between various aspects of Chinese tech presence in the U.S. and the specific risks they pose to American national security. For example, Chinese presence in U.S. 5G networks would introduce significant vulnerabilities in U.S. critical telecommunications infrastructure and expose sensitive communications to possible surveillance. Therefore, along with the governments in Britain, Canada, and several other countries, the Trump administration was correct to exclude Huawei from 5G networks.
But Chinese apps do not pose the same risks as the possible inclusion of Huawei in U.S. 5G networks. As noted in President Donald Trump’s executive orders, primary concerns with TikTok and WeChat include the possible collection of data on American users, exposure to Chinese disinformation campaigns, and censorship of political content. In contrast, Chinese-operated 5G networks create the risks of malicious cyberattacks and surveillance of U.S. communications on a much larger scale. Therefore, compared to Huawei, Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat pose more specific and limited risks that can be mitigated more easily.
Furthermore, unlike the case for Huawei-enabled 5G networks, individual users can evaluate the costs and benefits of using Chinese apps and decide whether to use them. For some users — like Chinese citizens and many Chinese-speaking Americans — the ability to communicate with Chinese relatives, friends, and colleagues will likely outweigh possible privacy and censorship concerns. Therefore, it was not surprising that the Ninth Circuit initially ruled against Trump’s WeChat ban, arguing that the ban violates constitutional free speech protections.
In contrast, military personnel and federal employees face more significant risks in using foreign applications where data can be accessed by third countries. Rather than outlawing WeChat and TikTok altogether, the Biden administration should continue President Trump’s existing ban on TikTok for military personnel and government-owned phones for federal employees. If necessary, such provisions could be extended to the use of WeChat by armed forces and government-owned phones for federal employees — without imposing a nationwide ban on the two apps.
As a last resort, the Biden administration can mandate that Chinese apps store U.S. user data in servers located within the United States. As part of Trump’s deal with TikTok, Walmart, and Oracle — in which U.S. investors would acquire the majority share of the U.S.-based TikTok Global — U.S. user data would remain within the United States (ByteDance shelved the deal following Biden’s election). This data localization requirement would limit Beijing’s access to American user data under the 2017 Chinese National Intelligence Law. Nevertheless, such an approach would weaken America’s traditional aversion toward any restrictions against the free flow of data. Therefore, this requirement should be considered only as a last resort — without which U.S. users will lose access to Chinese apps altogether.
While the Biden administration examines privacy concerns associated with Chinese apps, the lack of U.S. access to Chinese digital markets remains an even more significant problem. That is a sentiment shared by America’s European partners, like France and Germany, which have called for the same access to European markets that Chinese companies enjoy in Europe. As the Biden administration resumes bilateral dialogue with Beijing, it must emphasize improved access to Chinese digital markets as a condition for continued Chinese tech presence in the U.S. To this end, the Biden administration should consider cooperating with Britain, the E.U., and Japan to increase international pressure on China and improve U.S. tech companies access to Chinese markets.
President Biden faces a difficult choice in balancing security and economic considerations in dealing with China. As the Biden administration navigates this balance, it must not sacrifice the economic liberty of Americans in the name of security and privacy concerns. A more balanced and nuanced approach to reviewing individual Chinese tech companies operating in the U.S. is a step in the right direction.