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‘Cherry on the Cake’: How China Views the U.S. Crackdown on TikTok

Dan Wang has been a leading observer of contemporary China for years. As a tech analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics, a research firm, and through his well-read newsletter, Wang has charted the country’s rise as a fast-growing high-tech economy and, more recently, its slowdown and rising tensions with the United States.

Wang is now a visiting scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and writing a book about relations between the United States and China. He spoke with DealBook about how China views the latest U.S. crackdown on TikTok. The interview has been edited and condensed.

How does China see the latest TikTok fight?

Chinese state media and government spokespeople have made it clear that this is very unwelcome. China feels that ByteDance is a very successful company that is being bullied in America because it is Chinese. The Chinese people are affronted by the U.S. government declaring it a national security threat. And Beijing has passed laws that recommendation algorithms are subject to Chinese export controls, so the sense is that the government will not allow a sale to go through.

Is the Chinese government using the case as a propaganda tool?

State media is keeping its powder dry because there are still several steps before ByteDance might have to sell TikTok in the U.S. These include Senate passage, the White House’s signature, as well as the legal challenges that ByteDance is sure to bring. Before this looks really imminent, state media is not rallying citizens to object too much.

What does it look like when state media mobilizes the public?

In 2022, Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and a lot of Western companies made anodyne statements. Chinese state media seized on one company, H&M, which made a fairly typical statement that it did not source from Xinjiang or tolerate forced labor in its supply chains. China’s Communist Youth League account, which is one of the instruments of the Communist Party, reposted a statement on social media saying that you cannot both make money in China as well as criticize China. That incited a vast consumer boycott. H&M products disappeared from pretty much all e-commerce sites, and H&M stores disappeared from online maps. The company was essentially erased from the Chinese internet, and it was really difficult to buy its products or find its physical stores.

How could China retaliate against U.S. companies?

The more important question is: Does Beijing decide that this act is worthy of retaliation? I spent all four years of President Trump’s trade war living in China, and Beijing was highly forbearing toward U.S. companies for two broad reasons.

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