NEW YORK/BEIJING • Even as the Trump administration is threatening to ban popular Chinese apps, including TikTok and WeChat, “the United States may lose in Trump’s TikTok war”, an expert warns.
Professor Wei Shangjin of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business and School of International and Public Affairs has said that forcing TikTok to be sold cheaply to a “very American” buyer will endanger US firms in the Chinese market.
“If China were to mimic (US President Donald) Trump’s gambit – alleging, without providing evidence, that some US multinationals are potential national security threats – it could force them to sell their operations to ‘very Chinese’ buyers,” Prof Wei said in an opinion piece published by Project Syndicate last Thursday.
Prof Wei, who was chief economist of the Asian Development Bank from 2014 to 2016, added: “Although the Chinese government has not yet done so, the risk has become higher now.”
Mr Trump last Thursday issued an executive order banning US transactions with Chinese technology company ByteDance, owner of TikTok, starting in 45 days.
TikTok has been downloaded more than 175 million times in the US and over a billion times globally, according to the executive order, which claims that the app automatically captures “vast swaths of information” from its users, posing risks to US national security.
A similar executive order has been issued for WeChat, owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent.
Although Mr Trump’s actions may yield a short-term gain for the US, they have introduced potential risks to US interests, not to mention rules of commerce, Prof Wei said. Mr Trump is essentially doing what the US has long accused China of doing: disrespecting private property, presuming guilt without evidence, eroding foreign firms’ legitimate rights without compensation and using arbitrary, opaque rules to block them from operating in the country, he said.
“There is still time for the Trump administration to change course and avoid damaging US interests. But the clock is running.”
Meanwhile, a Global Times report yesterday said Mr Trump’s attack on WeChat might cause US tech giant Apple to lose most of its Chinese users, who generate up to 20 per cent of its global sales.
It quoted a survey launched last Friday by online business platform Xueqiu that asked the public to choose between Apple and WeChat if WeChat were banned from Apple’s App Store.
About 800,900 of more than 850,000 respondents said they would switch to an Android phone if they could not use WeChat on Apple’s iOS platform.
Industry observers said if that happened, most high-end Apple users would likely switch to its Chinese rival Huawei, Global Times reported. WeChat is essential for many Chinese users, as it is also a business and payment tool.