by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: CCO
THE TAIWANESE GOVERNMENT plans to ban TikTok/Douyin in the public sector, mandating that public sector workers cannot use the app, with rising concerns about the security threat posed by the Chinese app. It is more of a question as to whether there will be an outright ban on TikTok/Douyin for the general public, with pan-Green legislators calling for strong regulation, but this raises questions about the measures that the government can take against Chinese apps. TikTok/Douyin is likely to prove a litmus test, setting a benchmark for measures taken by the government regarding Chinese apps as a whole.
Calls for banning TikTok/Douyin take place at the same time as similar calls have been made in the US for banning TikTok on public sector devices or as a whole. As such, it is likely that calls to ban TikTok/Douyin–whether for the public as a whole or just on public sector devices–will be framed as aiming for similar measures taken by the US. One notes that, for example, laws regarding Chinese influence in politics were previously framed in context of similar laws in the US and Australia. This was not only to justify such laws, but in the sense that the measures were modeled after measures in the US and Australia.
Previous incidents that provoked alarm included soldiers on military facilities posting videos of themselves on TikTok/Douyin. Afterward, these soldiers were later discharged from service.
For Taiwan, TikTok/Douyin proves a particularly sensitive matter because of concerns that the platform could serve to amplify Chinese disinformation, with the Chinese government weaponizing the app against Taiwan. This could aim to affect the outcome of elections, perhaps by attacking the pan-Green camp and seeking to benefit the pan-Blue camp, or to just sow chaos with the aim of social disruption. The use of such platforms for disinformation operations could be particularly dangerous in the event of natural disasters or military contingencies. Likewise, the Chinese government is able to control what information circulates on such platforms.
Along similar lines, the Taiwanese government has also been cautious on the matter of Chinese over-the-top (OTT) providers that operate streaming services, such as iQiyi.com and TenCent Video. Namely, the Taiwanese government is unable to regulate the content of such streaming services, also raising concerns about if they could serve as means of spreading propaganda, misinformation, or disinformation. This previously led the Taiwanese government to ban Taiwanese companies from acting as intermediaries for Chinese OTT providers.
The ban on Taiwanese companies acting as intermediaries for OTT providers may be a model for how to regulate TikTok/Douyin, which also does not operate a branch in Taiwan. At the same time, the Taiwanese government did not block content from Chinese OTT providers outright, since this would infringe on freedoms of speech, rather targeting Taiwanese companies from acting as their intermediaries. In this sense, there would be difficulties regulating TikTok/Douyin, even if a ban on their use in public sector devices could be implemented.
It is not impossible that the pan-Blue camp militates against such measures, claiming that this is the Tsai administration seeking to crack down on dissenting political opinions and restrict freedoms of speech. Apart from trying to rally its base by engendering the sense of being under attack, the pan-Blue camp stands to benefit from Chinese disinformation.
Yet it proves interesting that the New Taipei government has thrown its weight behind the public sector ban, stating that it will work together with the central government to implement appropriate measures, New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi, considered a possible contender for the KMT presidential candidate in 2024, seems to be indicating that he intends to take a less hardline issue on China-related issues to hew toward a light Blue approach.
To this extent, TikTok/Douyin is not the only Chinese app of concern, with fears about the increasing use of Chinese apps among young people. Xiaohongshu is also popular among some young people, for example. The pan-Blue leanings of the leaders of some domestic Taiwanese platforms, too, could be a matter of concern if they hope to enter the Chinese market.
However, it is TikTok/Douyin that is currently discussed in western countries, as a result of which it is likely that measures targeting it will be deliberated before discussion of exclusively Chinese-language apps as Xiaohongshu. But it can be expected that measures taken with regards to TikTok/Douyin will impact measures with other apps, setting a benchmark for future measures.