These days it seems as if there are not many topics more divisive than that of China. The country of 1.4 billion people, ruled by the Communist Party of China (CPC) since 1949, has grown by leaps and bounds since opening up in 1978, lifting millions of people out of poverty and transforming the country into a global power rivaling the United States and Europe. 

This transformation has also given rise to the view that China now represents a significant threat militarily, politically, and economically, and that China must be “contained”, an effort that has been spearheaded by the United States and its allies.

One result of this policy and the adversarial mentality that it feeds is that in addition to targeting the Chinese government, officials, and state-owned companies, Western governments and organizations have also begun targeting Chinese companies, namely those that are successfully competing against Western rivals in global markets.

Victims of this approach have included Huawei, DJI, and more recently TikTok, and while there is definitely room for Chinese companies to improve their overseas operations, oversight, and compliance with local laws and regulations, more often than not one can observe a climate of fear-mongering, innuendoes, the cherry-picking of data, and a lack of proof of wrongdoing.

To demonstrate how Western organizations and individuals use misinformation on China and Chinese companies to fuel their own narrative, this piece will focus on recent accusations against TikTok by Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology.  

The Case Against TikTok by Tristan Harris

In late 2022, Tristan Harris was interviewed by 60 Minutes, during which he discussed how social media has hijacked users’ attention and rewards users for being more divisive. Harris discussed a number of social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. However, Harris also singled TikTok out for something that turned out to be demonstratively false.

What may not be clear to readers in the West is that China regulates certain industries much more stringently than other countries, including social media. Chinese censors are more strict on the type of content allowed on social media platforms in China, and in recent years have pushed Chinese social platforms to introduce limits to reduce user addiction.

These limits have included 40-minute daily time limits for users under 14, mandatory pauses in videos to reduce addiction, and mandatory educational content. This has led Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, to look rather dissimilar from the approach used by TikTok in overseas markets.

However, Tristan Harris didn’t use this information to discuss the pros and cons of more government regulations for social media platforms. Instead, as I discuss in my most recent YouTube vlog, he went on to claim that it was the choice of TikTok alone to addict overseas users with “opium” while feeding “spinach” to domestic users.

Harris’ arguments against TikTok in his interview with 60 Minutes thus are either an intentional fabrication or the result of incredibly sloppy research, as the facts about China’s regulation of technology and social media can be found easily via a quick Google search. And it’s also telling that the scary (and false) story Harris chose to tell was about a Chinese company. 

In this post, @SeanUM_China analyzes the claim that #TikTok is exclusively shipping “opium”, or addictive content, to overseas users and how misinformation on #China can be used to manipulate you.

Harris‘ cherry-picking and twisting of the facts to support his narrative feels rather transparent as has previously voiced support for greater government regulation of social media, which is exactly what the CPC forced Douyin and other platforms to do in China. However, when faced with an example of strong government regulation of social media, he instead leveled false allegations against a Chinese company, instead of opening advocating an approach used by the CPC, which many overseas would likely object to on general principle. 

A final note on Harris’ hypocritical and dishonest take concerns his use of the term “opium” when referring to addictive content to criticize a Chinese company for supposed wrongdoing in their overseas business practices.

Opium use has long been a negative stereotype of Chinese and Asian people, all the more hurtful due to the fact that Opium use in China was spearheaded by Britain’s East India Company, later leading to two Opium Wars that forced China to allow the opium trade, open additional ports to foreign traders and relinquish control of Hong Kong to the British government. In effect, the opium trade was a tool of the aggressive imperialism and colonization that still haunts China’s memory to this day.

British forces attack China during the first Opium War.

However, Harris either didn’t know this or didn’t care – All that mattered was selling his anti-social media message, no matter what facts he got wrong about TikTok and what negative stereotypes he perpetuated about China. And as we’ve seen with past fear-mongering campaigns against China, such as that surrounding the outbreak of COVID-19, the result is not only fear and mistrust, but violence against regular people of Asian (not just Chinese) descent.

The Business of Fear and protecting Yourself from Misinformation on China

However, Harris was right on the money when he discussed how the news and social media thrive and grow by sharing content that enrages users, and as we have seen in recent years, enraging content doesn’t have to be true. The dangers of online rumors and fake news, as well as how they are used to manipulate opinions are discussed in the book “Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday, a useful resource to those looking to better understand how misinformation and rumors thrive.

And because China, as well as most things related to China, are such divisive and scary topics, bloggers, influencers, and news organizations realize that negative news on China sells better and generates a much greater number of views. This is a trend that has sadly continued to dominate discourse on China, both online and offline something we can see more and more in daily discourse, online and off. In extreme cases, videos have even been published with negative color filters depicting China for overseas audiences.

This tendency of negative stories to spread have allowed many so-called experts and social media personalities to literally make their careers through criticizing China, often without understanding the issues, culture, or language. A classic example of this approach is the Trump era advisor Peter Navarro, who turned out to have invented an China expert named Ron Vara, which he used as a source to criticize China.

And what viewers and readers need to understand about this approach, is that they are the product – whoever creates the news on China (as well as other topics), be it true or false, has a vested interest in influencing and enraging viewers to drive views and engagement. This appears to be exactly what Tristan Harris did with TikTok – twisting and misrepresenting the facts to make a “scary” Chinese company sound worse than it actually was (in this instance).

For consumers, the only real defense against this type of intentional misinformation is by taking individual responsibility for one’s news and social media consumption. I’ve mentioned in the past that checking news stories across multiple outlets is key, as well as avoiding more extreme news sources on both the left and the right.

It’s also advisable to read controversial stories before sharing them, not only to get all the facts but because it has become common in the media for titles to be changed so that they are more enraging and not fully representing the articles they precede.

A Final Note on the Real Threat of Chinese Companies

In the end, a key point is that Chinese companies should only be criticized or condemned for actual wrongdoings, not transparent attempts at scapegoating or creating fear.

In this piece and on my YouTube vlog, I’ve demonstrated that Harris’ claims about TikTok and Douyin are demonstratively false. However, it is perfectly legitimate to criticize the plans of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance to monitor the physical locations of US persons. There’s still no evidence of any actual CPC involvement, just that of an incredibly bad business decision that further hurts the company’s image. 

This also reflects my own experience with Chinese companies when it comes to business practices in overseas markets – In so far as I have personally observed over 12 years of experience, bad practices, when they occur, essentially have no link to the Chinese government. Sometimes companies make honest mistakes through ignorance, while some try to skate around the rules to move faster.

This brings us to the current trend towards completely blocking and banning Chinese companies from Western markets, as opposed to requiring greater regulation and oversight, and punishing those who do not comply. This approach, has already affected Huawei in the USA and may soon impact TikTok as well. 

Banning competitors from China is a short-term measure that removes choices from consumers.

This is problematic for several reasons. On one hand, banning companies because of the risk of some shadowy connection to the CPC, that may or may not exist now or in the future creates a climate of fear that can be used to manipulate people’s choices. It also removes choices from consumers and prevents the greater benefit that would result from greater competition involving both domestic and international companies.

For example, despite Harris’ twisting of the facts concerning TikTok, he did make the case for why greater regulation of social media platforms is important, not just for consumers but the national discourse as well. Banning TikTok would allow Western social media platforms to continue with business as usual, while greater regulation would force all social companies operating in the USA to get a better handle on manipulative content.

Huawei is another example. On one hand, rural carriers in the USA are suffering after previously relying on high-quality and low-priced Huawei equipment, which has how been effectively banned. On the other hand, Huawei was also previously blocked from cooperating with local carriers to sell its smartphones in the domestic US market after US politicians applied pressure on AT&T.

In closing, based on the above examples, the real threat that many Chinese companies pose, based on my own experience, is that they are providing competitive alternatives to those traditionally offered by domestic companies (Samsung an exception with smartphones), in both quality, popularity, and in some cases price.

Therefore, my suggestions is that the next time you read about the “threat” posed by a Chinese company, consider carefully whether they are actually a threat to you or merely a competative threat to a local business. Banning them removes the threat of competition, while allowing them to compete under strict regulations can improve an entire industry and force local competitors to improve, which benefits all.

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