As China's internet giants expand their global reach, they bring Chinese censorship to the world

Short-video app TikTok is one of the rare Chinese internet companies to have had huge success outside China.
PHOTO: Reuters

Social media fans outside China are well aware of the short-video sharing app TikTok. Since its official launch outside the country in 2017, it has accumulated some 1.5 billion users around the world.

TikTok users thus outnumber China's own population. In 2018 alone, TikTok was downloaded more than 1 billion times, more than Instagram.

Those results are not necessarily organic: the company spent US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) on an aggressive advertising campaign in the past year.

In the third quarter of 2019, data from analytics firm Sensor Tower showed that the number of first-time users installing the app declined compared to the previous year.

But the challenges facing ByteDance, the Beijing-based internet company that owns TikTok, go beyond its regular business metrics.

Chinese companies such as Tencent and ByteDance face a common challenge in the wider world. Despite their success in terms of the number of users, profitability and reach, they have been criticised for censorship and their implicit function as a form of Chinese communist propaganda.

Like some other apps, TikTok and Tencent-owned social media platform WeChat both have policies refusing paid political ads, but the way that these companies treat their content in overseas markets is seen to be political.

TikTok has been accused of censoring content criticising the Chinese government on issues such as Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests and re-education camps in Xinjiang.

ByteDance has also declined to testify before the US Congress about its business and possible risks to American consumers.

Meanwhile, WeChat censorship apparatus extends beyond China's borders.

A research group from the University of Toronto found that WeChat screens content on its app in Canada and filters text and images out of one-on-one and group chats without senders or receivers realising.

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These facts reflect poorly on the image of these companies, making them look like players in the Communist Party's soft-power push.

WeChat denies it censors user content worldwide. TikTok has gone further: its CEO Alez Zhu said he would decline requests to take down content even from the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Despite Zhu's assertion, TikTok's parent company has a less than stellar record of defying the Chinese government.

In 2018, China's media regulator ordered widely used news portal Toutiao, operated by ByteDance, to shut down one of its most popular apps, Neihan Duanzi, taking issue with its "vulgar content".

Toutiao apologised for letting users down but complied with little resistance.

Apparently ByteDance is smart enough to pick the right battles: company executives missing a hearing at the US Congress does not matter as much as complying with the Chinese authorities.

It is clear that the Chinese government has a significant stake in how Chinese internet companies operate, even in their businesses overseas.

Both Tencent and ByteDance's operations in mainland China are certainly too big to lose. There is very little incentive for these companies to go against the Chinese government.

It serves their interests little to fight against censorship requests, the Great Firewall and the Community Party's repressive internet policies.

But the Chinese government also put these internet companies in a predicament overseas. It is not in their best interests to have negative relations with regulators in foreign states.

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The Chinese government's censorship policies have thus become an obstacle to their success in the free world.

Arguably these companies are themselves victims of the Communist Party's oppressive policies - ByteDance lost a prime smartphone app and Tencent has faced difficulties obtaining licences for its games.

With increasing numbers of immigrants from China who rely on WeChat as a primary source of information, countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand are becoming more vulnerable to threats of Communist Party propaganda targeting overseas Chinese communities during elections.

As for TikTok, its impact could be even greater due to its popularity among the younger generation.

How WeChat and ByteDance respond to security concerns will be closely watched, as it corroborates a core Western fear that could jeopardise their business operations - that these companies' influence around the world could be used by the Communist Party to serve its own political agenda.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.