CANBERRA: Indians have been very enthusiastic users of all forms of social media, but TikTok has found them to be an especially eager audience.
With 660 million downloads of the app and more than 120 million active users, India represents TikTok’s biggest foreign market.
The short-video platform has proven ideal for Indians who love to showcase their Bollywood dancing and lip-syncing skills (which is, regardless of technology, everyone’s favourite indoor sport).
It has made superstars out of ordinary Indians across the socio-economic divide – such as the small-town shop owner who has been profiled by the BBC, and established Bollywood actors and dancers, such as Ahsaas Channa, with 3.4 million followers.
Most notably, it allows rural Indian users to emerge from the shadows – such as a brother and sister dancing duo from Jharkhand, in the tribal belt in central India who have almost 5 million followers, and one video that has gained an astonishing 23 million views. That’s Kardashian-level following.
But despite the app’s immense popularity, the Indian government included it on a list of 59 banned Chinese mobile apps earlier this week. Also banned are WeChat, Alibaba’s UC Browser and e-commerce app Shein.
In a statement, the Indian government said:
The Ministry of Information Technology has received many complaints from various sources, including several reports about misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India.
The compilation of user data for mining and profiling by elements hostile to India’s national security and defence is a matter of deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures.
In a statement posted to its social media channels, TikTok India said, “The Government of India has issued an interim order for the blocking of 59 apps, including TikTok, and we are in the process of complying with it.”
“TikTok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law and have not shared any information of our users in India with any foreign government, including the Chinese Government,” said the company, which is owned by China’s ByteDance.
A CRITICAL TIME FOR THE BAN
There are two elements to the move. One is that it is a reasonable response to growing credible fears that the Chinese government is using these apps to mine data and gain personal information about users.
With calls to extend the ban to take in Chinese tech giants Huawei, ZTE and even the widely used Paytm (which is Indian-owned yet received massive funding from Alibaba), the ban is welcomed by Indian commentators who say it is a fitting response to a pressing need to crack down on Chinese excesses.
The issues around privacy and data mining are nothing new; in fact, US senators have been agitating for an intelligence probe into TikTok for some months.
But India’s ban comes at a critical time: A few weeks after a heated border clash and amid the ensuing anti-China sentiment at home, the move is widely seen as a response to China’s ongoing encroachment into Indian territory.
The June clashes that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead were in response to the Chinese army’s attempts to set up camp in border areas in Ladakh region, specifically the Galwan Valley.
In that context, the move signals that decades of appeasement towards China by a succession of Indian leaders is coming to an end, something that has earned Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his predecessors significant criticism.
READ: Commentary: China's boundary skirmishes with India have wider economic and geopolitical implications
INDIA’S TIKTOK USERS ADRIFT
While the ban is a baby step, and one that will hurt Indian TikTok users – particularly those who gain an income from their online presence – more than it will hurt China, it can be viewed as a warning shot across the border.
The ban will have undoubted economic ramifications, with ByteDance likely shelving plans to invest US$1 billion in India and open up a local headquarters. Other moves that clamp down on Chinese investment are expected to follow.
However, India’s protectionist legacy – its economy only really opened up to the outside world in 1991 – combined with the more recent Modi-initiated “Make In India” campaign, means it is oddly well-equipped to fill any gap in Chinese-made goods with its own domestically produced versions, although often of lower quality.
For example, while Xiaomi currently holds the top spot on the Indian mobile phone market, local manufacturer Micromax is a respected local competitor, albeit with phones at a lower price and quality point.
While the ban is being broadly welcomed in India, where deep anti-China sentiment has taken hold, many are lamenting that they won’t be able to use TikTok anymore and watch videos from users of all walks of life.
For instance, a clip of a man lipsyncing to music while herding goats has garnered vast appreciation on Twitter.
For men like this, who make India the world’s greatest untapped digital market, the ban is less about geopolitical wrangling and everything about removing this vital source of connection to the outside world.
Aarti Betigeri is a multi-platform journalist and former foreign correspondent based in Canberra. This commentary first appeared on Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter.