I am not a fan of social media. I have a couple of accounts but rarely use them. In addition to the demonstrated ill-effects on young people, their algorithms have tended to erode the republic when people get both “news” and conspiracy theories from them. Yet the bipartisan enthusiasm to ban TikTok — owned by the Chinese company ByteDance and most famous for hosting teenage dance videos — is not only a bad idea, but a downright ridiculous one.
The Biden administration wants TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their stake or face a possible nationwide ban. It’s not an idle threat; in 2020, the Trump administration forced a Chinese firm to sell the dating app Grindr.
When both parties agree on something, citizens should be wary. Despite the political stupidity of shutting down a platform used by nearly 150 million people, many of them young voters or potentially future voters, banning TikTok seems to join the “creeping fascism” of banning books from schools. In short, a ban would likely violate the First Amendment.
The First Amendment doesn’t have an exemption for national security, and given the weak reasoning offered by proponents of such censorship of TikTok, even national security should be put in quotes. Proponents say that the Chinese government has a heavy influence over companies in China (true) and that the company could be forced to give over dancing Americans’ data to that government (also true). Yet if the Chinese government assiduously wants data on American teenagers cutting the rug, it can get it through other, less protected sources — and it does.
The other rap on TikTok is that it could be used by the Chinese government to foist propaganda on America, with memories of the Russian efforts during the 2016 election. Yet studies seem to question the efficacy of Russia’s effort to secure Trump’s victory. More evidence exists that his election win can be attributed to FBI Director James Comey’s last-minute reopening of the agency’s email investigation of his opponent Hillary Clinton, Trump’s payoff to keep an affair with a porn star quiet, and Clinton being an unappealing candidate. And as Thomas Jefferson once said in a republic, disinformation should not be censored, but could best be countered with the truth.
The enthusiasm to ban TikTok goes deeper than national security; a bipartisan Cold War-like animus has arisen toward all things China. Both U.S. political parties are now protectionist and resent the degree that the United States is dependent on imports from China. The U.S. national security establishment is concerned that China’s rhetoric and actions toward Taiwan are becoming more aggressive, but the abysmal performance of Russia’s supposedly reformed post-Cold War military in Ukraine should give Chinese leader Xi Jinping pause that his generals also have been hiding from him major problems in a corrupt military embedded in an autocratic society.
Although China is a more formidable competitor economically, Xi is retightening the communist government’s hold over Chinese business, the economy, and society. This increased authoritarianism is bad for the Chinese people but good for U.S. security, because in the long run it will weaken the Chinese economy — and therefore the political and military challenge to the United States.
Yet large parts of both parties are supportive of President Joe Biden’s lead in taking on, often by proxy, both Russia and China at the same time. Of course, there is a possibility that such dual hostility ultimately could result in an ill-advised two-front war with both great powers at the same time. This risky policy is the opposite of President Richard Nixon, who, although corrupt, was skillful in driving a wedge between China and the Soviet Union by improving relations with both.
After the indefensible and unnecessarily brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is currently infeasible to improve relations with Russia, but China is a different matter. To insert a wedge between the two countries instead of driving them together with hostility to both, the Biden administration should cool the anti-China rhetoric, signal an easing of relations, and then make the striking policy change of actually recognizing a greater role for China in Asia. This change might even pay immediate dividends by allowing China to help call off the Russian dog in Ukraine.
Such a policy change toward China would require Biden to stop verbally committing the United States to directly defend Taiwan, with his national security establishment then walking back those pledges by insisting that U.S. policy has not changed. The change would not require the United States to stop selling Taiwan the modern arms needed to execute a “porcupine strategy” to inflict enough damage on Chinese forces to deter an attack.
The bipartisan support for banning TikTok illustrates that anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States has soared to ridiculously dangerous levels and should be replaced with the U.S. government’s acceptance of a rising China. It’s either that or possibly a new war (cold or hot) — perhaps on dual fronts simultaneously with two great powers.