Trump issues orders for US ban on WeChat, TikTok in 45 days

Trump issues orders for US ban on WeChat, TikTok in 45 days

Illustration picture of Wechat and TikTok apps near China and U.S. flags
The messenger app WeChat and short-video app TikTok are seen near China and US flags in this illustration picture taken Aug 7, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Florence Lo)

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump issued executive orders on Thursday (Aug 6) banning any US transactions with ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns video-sharing app TikTok, and Tencent, owner of the WeChat app, starting in 45 days.

The orders come as the Trump administration said this week it was stepping up efforts to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from US digital networks and called the Chinese-owned short-video app TikTok and messenger app WeChat "significant threats".

China firmly opposes the executive orders and will defend the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese businesses, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a media briefing on Friday.

Wang said the companies comply with US laws and regulations and warned that the United States would have to "bear the consequences" of its action.

"The US is using national security as an excuse and using state power to oppress non-American businesses. That's just a hegemonic practice," said Wang.

The TikTok app may be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, and the United States "must take aggressive action against the owners of TikTok to protect our national security", Trump said in one order.

In the other, Trump said WeChat "automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users. This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans' personal and proprietary information".

READ: US Senate bans TikTok on government devices

READ: US steps up campaign to purge 'untrusted' Chinese apps

The order would effectively ban WeChat in the United States in 45 days by barring "to the extent permitted under applicable law, any transaction that is related to WeChat by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, with Tencent Holdings".

"We are shocked by the recent Executive Order, which was issued without any due process," TikTok said in a statement on Friday, adding that it would "pursue all remedies available to us in order to ensure that the rule of law is not discarded".

"We are reviewing the executive order to get a full understanding," a Tencent spokesperson said.

TikTok has come under fire from US lawmakers over national security concerns surrounding data collection as distrust between Washington and Beijing grows. Reuters on Sunday reported that Trump has given Microsoft 45 days to complete the purchase of TikTok's US operations.

The ban on US transactions with Tencent, one of the world's biggest Internet companies, portends further fracturing of the global Internet and severing of long-standing ties between the tech industries in the United States and China.

"This is the rupture in the digital world between the US and China," said James Lewis, a technology expert with Washington-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Absolutely, China will retaliate."

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expanded a program dubbed "Clean Network" to prevent various Chinese apps and telecoms firms from accessing sensitive information on US citizens and businesses.

READ: What are the main areas of tension in the US-China relationship?

Trump's new orders appeared coordinated with Pompeo's announcement, Lewis said.

BIGGEST TARGET

WeChat has been downloaded a relatively small 19 million times in the United States, showed data from Sensor Tower.

In China, however, the app is ubiquitous as a medium for services as varied as games and payment. It is also a common platform to communicate with individuals and businesses outside of China.

US social media and messaging services such Facebook's WhatsApp and Messenger are blocked in China, where a "great firewall" prevents citizens from freely accessing the worldwide web, and where online communication is routinely monitored and censored.

Washington's concerns about China's tech industry had until recently focused on telecom equipment vendor Huawei Technologies. As relations soured over a host of economic and human rights issues, it has sanctioned numerous other Chinese tech firms.

READ: Commentary: It was always going to be hard for Huawei to stay in Western markets

Tencent is the biggest target yet. It is Asia's second most-valuable company after Alibaba Group with a market capitalisation of US$686 billion, and is among the world's largest social media and video game companies. It opened a California gaming studio earlier this summer and owns minority stakes in numerous gaming and Internet firms around the world, including US messaging app operator Snap.

It was not clear whether the sanction would effect Tencent's other holdings in the country.

Trump's order sent Asian stock markets lower on Friday, with Tencent shares falling as far as 10.1 per cent before recouping some of its losses in afternoon trade.

The yuan, a barometer of Sino-US relations, posted its steepest drop since the United States expelled China from its Houston consulate a little over two weeks ago.

SWEEPING POWER

Trump issued the orders under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a law that grants the administration sweeping power to bar US firms or citizens from trading or conducting financial transactions with sanctioned parties.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will identify transactions covered after the orders take effect in mid-September.

Tension has been simmering between the two powers for months, with the United States taking issue with China's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and moves to curb freedoms in Hong Kong. The increasingly aggressive posture towards Beijing comes as Trump bids for re-election in November.

READ: US announces 'highest-level' visit in decades to Taiwan, angering China

Trump said this week he would support Microsoft's efforts to buy TikTok's US operations if the US government got a "substantial portion" of the proceeds. He nevertheless said he will ban the popular app on Sep 15, though some Republicans have raised concerns about potential political fallout.

The United States is not alone in its concern about Chinese Internet apps: WeChat and TikTok were among 59 mostly Chinese apps that India outlawed in June for threatening its "sovereignty and integrity".

Source: Reuters/ga/dv

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