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#2 - TikTok vs TikTok & The Third Opium War
抖音 - Dou3 Yin1 - trill musical sounds (a Chinese app called TikTok in the US, for creating and sharing short videos)
Today’s Chinese communists generally divide their own country’s history into different sections. One of the major divisions is before the First Opium War in 1839, when China sat at the center of a China-centric Asia, and after 1839, which kicks off the Century of National Humiliation [百年国耻].
By 1838, foreign powers imported over 2,500 tons of opium into China every year. Today, many PRC thinkers believe this opiate problem had a profound negative influence on Chinese society, promoting a generation of addicts unable or unwilling to contribute positively to the Qing Dynasty. In this line of thinking, the massive addiction problem was part of the cultural malaise that forced China into a weaker position versus other great powers of the time, the same great powers forcing this opium trade on to the Qing.
PRC strategy today likely incorporates this stratagem of pointing cultural weapons at adversaries. One such weapon is Douyin [抖音], a social media app produced by a Chinese tech firm called ByteDance and branded as TikTok outside of China, to include America. Since all Chinese companies are required by law (specifically the 2017 National Intelligence Law) to be extensions of the Chinese Communist Party, it is fascinating how the CCP treats Douyin domestically while allowing the same app to operate in an entirely different fashion internationally.
In the PRC, children under 14 are not allowed to access Douyin from 10pm to 6am. Users may watch the app for 40 minutes at a time, after which a prompt asking if the user wants to continue displays across the screen. Additionally, the content is not the normal user-generated feed. In its place is a centrally controlled feed of 543,600 curated science and math videos, patriotic lessons, and moral teachings.
One of the reasons the CCP is able to control this consumption has been the construction of a true identity layer which is required to access some Chinese apps and software. Users are required to show proof of identity, and this concept is likely to expand significantly in the future.
This is much different than how the CCP deploys Douyin/TikTok in the US. The Wall Street Journal created multiple Douyin bot accounts registered as 13 to 15-year-olds. “TikTok served one account registered as a 13-year-old at least 569 videos about drug use, references to cocaine and meth addiction, and promotional videos for online sales of drugs products and paraphernalia [...] TikTok also showed the Journal’s teenage users more than 100 videos from accounts recommending paid pornography sites and sex shops. Thousands of others were from creators who labeled their content for adults only.”
Quite an interesting difference. Douyin’s algorithm works by noticing the true indicator that a user is interested in something; how long the user views a particular video on their phone screen. This algorithm rewards the most sensational content, building on a wave of dopamine to get American children addicted to the feed, which displays lowest common denominator content. At the same time, it seems the CCP is attempting to cultivate Chinese children’s ability to delay gratification, a major indicator of success in life.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
Three thoughts on this post. First, top-down attempts at societal control always have unintended consequences. Whether or not this strategy is effective is less interesting than the window it gives into CCP thought. The PRC appears to be preparing for a long term competition with the United States where they are comfortable targeting US children.
Second, the non-reaction by the United States is alarming. As other commentators have mentioned, this would be similar to the Soviet Union controlling a major portion of the US under-18 media environment during the Cold War. It is completely inappropriate and the app needs to be banned from the US, as India has already done. The Trump administration failed to make a compelling case in their abortive attempt to block Douyin on national security grounds. The Biden administration has tacitly endorsed the app by pulling back on attempts to ban it while simultaneously sending US government money to pay for vaccination influencers on Douyin. Quite the debacle.
Third, regardless of what content the app displays, it is infested with spyware. As Douyin became more and more popular, it likely caught the eye of China’s intelligence services as a potential electronic platform from which to conduct surveillance. Microphone recording, facial scan capture, fingerprint data retention, and clipboard snooping are just some of the lovely built-in features.
As the US-China rivalry grows, Douyin is highly likely to get banned from the US market at some point. Ultimately, there is a good chance that the PRC and US economies will delink in the future. One of the friction points that may cause this rift will likely be the behavior of the CCP acting though Douyin.