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China’s TikTok Bill Anger ‘Supremely Ironic,’ US Envoy Says

China’s TikTok Bill Anger ‘Supremely Ironic,’ US Envoy Says
Nicholas Burns Source: Bloomberg

The top American diplomat in China hit out at Beijing’s objection to a potential ban on TikTok in the US, in sharp comments that underscore persistent tensions between the countries despite a recent improvement in ties.

“I find it supremely ironic because government officials here are using the X platform to criticize the United States,” Ambassador Nicholas Burns said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Thursday. “They don’t give their own citizens the right to use X, to use Instagram, to use Facebook, to have access to Google.”

Burns said the video-sharing app and advanced chips are central to the competition between the world’s two largest economies, further signaling the Biden administration’s toughened position toward China’s technological ambitions.

“Technology is in many ways now at the heart of the competition between the United States and China, whether it’s commercial technology, TikTok for instance, or whether it’s technology that can be transformed into military technology used to compete against us,” Burns said.

Earlier in the day, Beijing called on the US to stop “unreasonably suppressing” TikTok after the US House of Representatives passed a bill to ban TikTok in the country unless its Chinese owner sells the app. The fate of the platform used by 170 million Americans is now in the hands of 100 senators, who have yet to review the legislative proposal.

When asked about Burns’s remarks on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said: “The US styles itself as a country of free speech and a free-market economy but it’s left no stone unturned to harness state power to go after TikTok. This is the really ironic thing.”

China was open to “all kinds of platforms, products and services” as long as they followed the law, Wang said at the regular press briefing. “TikTok operates lawfully and was registered in accordance with US law but it was suppressed by the US side.”

Read More: Xi Upends the Secretive World of $10,000-an-Hour China Experts

Burns’s comments came a week after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi blasted the US for imposing a “bewildering” level of trade curbs on the Asian nation and accused Biden of failing to fulfill promises he made in a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a summit in the US, although he didn’t specify what they are.

Asked about Wang’s allegation, Burns said: “We’ve kept our commitments that we’ve made in San Francisco.”

Burns also cast doubt on China’s stated goal to attract more foreign investment as the world’s second-largest economy seeks to regain its economic momentum. Beijing this month set an ambitious target to grow the economy by around 5% this year, a goal met with skepticism by some economists.

The diplomat said American businesses operating in China are hesitant to invest more in the country, citing what he called conflicting signals from the Chinese authorities.

“Some senior Chinese government officials say private-sector investment is welcome in China, your investment will be protected. But then these companies are also hearing a different message,” he said. He named the raids against US companies last year and China’s broad new counter-espionage law as factors that deter investment.

“I think the voices that they’re hearing from the government here in China about national security — they’re the strongest and loudest voices right now,” he said, adding that the raids went beyond the due diligence companies and consultancies that were publicly probed by Chinese authorities.

Washington has sought to stabilize its ties with Beijing after they soured last year over an alleged Chinese spy balloon, but the two countries have continued to dispute over issues spanning Ukraine, the South China Sea and Taiwan. The US has also continued to increase its trade and technological restrictions on Beijing.

Burns defended Washington’s curbs on China’s access to high-end chips as a necessity.

“We’re not going to compromise on national security and we’re not going to negotiate,” Burns said.

The Biden administration has been adding sanctions to suppress the advancement of China’s technological capabilities, saying such technology could be used to bolster China’s military power. Earlier this month, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said Washington “will do whatever it takes” to curb China’s access to sophisticated semiconductor technologies.

The Biden administration is mulling fresh sanctions on several Chinese tech companies, including memory chipmaker ChangXin Memory Technologies Inc. US President Joe Biden pledged Tuesday to look into a petition from a group of unions asking his administration to review China’s subsidies for shipbuilders.

Burns did acknowledge areas where US-China ties have improved. He said China has helped US law enforcement in curbing the flow of the drug fentanyl and its precursor chemicals, in addition to starting a discussion on risks associated with artificial intelligence and resuming military-to-military communications.

Below are some excerpts from the interview:

On TikTok as a national security threat:

“The president has spoken to it and I think Jake Sullivan asked the right questions when he spoke to it this week at the White House. He said, ‘Do we want an American company or a Chinese company to own this, this very important technology, TikTok? Do we want an American company to have access to the data of millions of Americans or a Chinese company?’ And the answers to both questions are obvious when it comes to TikTok.”

On Chinese industrial overcapacity:

“I think there’s a growing concern around the world that if part of what the government here tries to do to deal with its own internal economic problems is to ramp up manufacturing and export. That excess production at artificially low prices or dumping to the rest of the world, whether it’s Europe on EVs, whether it’s the United States, whether it’s Japan and South Korea — that’s going to roil and disturb and complicate global trade.”

On US businesses in China:

“A lot of companies don’t know what the direction of the economy is here, and where policy, guidelines and parameters will be. And so they’re not quite sure if they make a major investment, whether that’s going to be a rational decision. So a lot of people are sitting on their money. Very few companies are leaving this market. It’s such a big market, an important market. But a lot of companies have Plan Bs as well.”

On the outcome of the Biden-Xi summit in November:

“San Francisco did not resolve all the problems between the two governments and on the military, on technology, on human rights — we have profound differences with China, and we’ll continue to talk about those.”

On military-to-military communications with China:

“Our new chairman of the joint chiefs, Chairman Brown, has had a discussion with his Chinese counterpart. And we hope very much that Secretary Austin will be able to talk to his counterpart in the coming weeks or months. And, and then we hope there’ll be even conversations at a more tactical level between our militaries. This is common sense because you want to drive down the possibility of any kind of accident or misunderstanding between our air forces or our navies.”

On Hong Kong’s efforts to make a new security law:

“We have serious concerns about the Article 23 legislation. We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks as to whether or not that moves forward. But the concerns are about the right of people to dissent, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the State Department’s been very clear about that concern that we have over the last several weeks.”

On getting Taylor Swift to perform in China:

“My three daughters and my granddaughter would never forgive me if we didn’t try to get Taylor Swift to come to China. Chinese people need to see American culture and American life in all of its manifestations, and she’s a brilliant artist.”

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