WeChat, TikTok: Washington tackles China’s digital success stories

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By banning WeChat and TikTok apps in the United States within 45 days, US President Donald Trump is attacking two Chinese internet giants with global ambitions and opening a new front in the technological rivalry with Beijing.

What is WeChat?

It is an instant messaging system launched in 2011 and originally offering features similar to the American WhatsApp (exchange of texts, photos and videos). WeChat was the first to offer an audio messaging feature which made it very popular in China.

Since then, a very wide range of services have been integrated into the application which is today more of an ecosystem: payment by phone (online or in store via a barcode system), news feed, reservations hotels or travel, video games, online finance …

Known as Weixin in Mandarin, WeChat has no less than 1.2 billion active users. They are predominantly Chinese even though the application is available in nearly twenty languages.

It is owned by Tencent, one of the Chinese digital giants and the undisputed leader in smartphone video games. The private group has for a time rivaled Facebook in terms of stock market weight.

An app under surveillance

WeChat has been pinned down by Citizen Lab, an information control institute attached to the University of Toronto, for censoring any reference to the new coronavirus at the start of the epidemic in China.

Some redacted terms related to information later made official, such as the virus being contagious between humans.

In the name of stability, it is common in China for internet giants to remove content considered politically sensitive, often referred to as “rumors”.

WeChat filters the content of all users registered with Chinese phone numbers, Citizen Lab reported in 2016.

WeChat’s privacy policy states that user information may be shared “as needed”, including with the state, to “comply with a legal obligation or procedures”.

TikTok, 2 billion downloads

Dances or songs in playback, filmed challenges, absurd or humorous scenes: the application for sharing short videos has conquered teenagers around the world.

TikTok crossed the milestone of 2 billion downloads worldwide in April, according to the Sensor Tower firm, when a large part of humanity was confined due to Covid-19.

TikTok is the international version of the Douyin application (its name in Mandarin), intended solely for the Chinese market.

Both belong to the private group ByteDance, founded in Beijing in 2012 by Zhang Yiming, a computer engineer by training.

The 30-year-old joined the ranks of China’s 20 largest fortunes last year, valued in his case at $ 13.5 billion, according to the benchmark Hurun ranking.

Suspicions and controversies

Washington suspects TikTok of being a spy tool for Chinese intelligence services, which the app denies.

The United States is TikTok’s third largest country in terms of downloads.

In India, the application was banned at the end of June in the name of national security, after a deadly clash with China over a border dispute in the Himalayas.

Indians make up a third of TikTok users worldwide, according to Sensor Tower.

Already last year, TikTok was briefly banned in the country as well as in Bangladesh, where the authorities accused it of spreading pornographic videos.

Also in 2019, TikTok was singled out for accounts that posted propaganda videos from the Islamic State (IS) organization. The app then deleted them.

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