US President Donald Trump's anti-TikTok offensive left Alex Stamos, the former head of cybersecurity for Facebook, largely indifferent. "TikTok is not even in my Top 10 most problematic security applications," he told the BBC on Wednesday (August 5th), adding that he considered the Chinese messaging app WeChat to be good. more dangerous.
Someone in the White House must have agreed with him. Indeed, Washington announced Thursday evening that TikTok would not be the only Chinese target of a ban on operating on North American territory in 45 days. WeChat, an application developed by Chinese Internet giant Tencent, is also targeted by the US administration.
China monitoring tool
“Like TikTok, WeChat automatically obtains a large amount of personal information about its users. A database which risks allowing the Chinese Communist Party to have access to sensitive information on American nationals ”, affirms Donald Trump in his presidential decree.
The American president is not (entirely) wrong. For several years, cybersecurity experts have compared WeChat to the digital surveillance tool “Beijing has always dreamed of”, as Slate wrote in 2018. The Citizen Lab, a Canadian research center on freedom of expression in online, began as early as 2016 to document how Chinese authorities were monitoring discussions on WeChat to better censor the content of what could be exchanged through this app.
But putting WeChat and TikTok in the same secure bag is still a questionable shortcut. The surveillance and censorship on WeChat mainly concerns the Chinese. This service “operates on the model of one application, two systems,” notes the Citizen Lab. This reference to the famous legal status enjoyed by Hong Kong means that there is no evidence that the Chinese regime is censoring WeChat discussions for nationals of countries other than China.
In addition, this messaging system has never succeeded in establishing itself internationally with the same success as TikTok. More than 90% of WeChat's 1.2 billion users are in China or are Chinese expatriates, recalls the TechCrunch site.
“Radical escalation” of the conflict with China
The White House is aware of this. To justify its action against Tencent's messaging, the presidential decree officially cites the need to protect the Chinese in the United States from Beijing surveillance. Washington thus adds a new string to its anti-Chinese rhetoric: until now, the sanctions against Huawei or TikTok were aimed at protecting the personal information of US nationals only. With WeChat, the White House is now establishing itself as a champion of freedom of expression for all, even Chinese, in the face of what is portrayed as a worldwide campaign of mass surveillance made in China. “This is a radical escalation of the conflict with China,” summarizes the New York Times.
Above all, this new open front in the Sino-American conflict puts the United States up against an adversary far more powerful than Bytedance, the parent company of TikTok. Tencent, a conglomerate born in 1998, has a market capitalization of $ 680 billion, nearly 10 times the estimated value of Bytedance. It is not only the most powerful internet group in China behind Alibaba. It is also a central piece of the Chinese digital economy thanks to WeChat.
More than just messaging, it's a do-it-all app. In China, it serves as a means of payment, a social network, a direct advertising platform for brands, or even an online store for merchants. Difficult, if not impossible, to do business in China without having access to WeChat, underlines the Financial Times. If American companies can no longer use this app, "it is practically the same as cutting off all communication with China for them," laments Graham Webster, a specialist in the Chinese digital economy at the progressive think tank New America, interviewed by Bloomberg.
Donald Trump's decision to attack Tencent therefore risks causing very damaging collateral damage to the interests of American companies in China. "If the Chinese can no longer pay for their Starbuck coffee with WeChat, they will buy less," said Connie Gu, analyst for the Hong Kong financial services group Bocom International.
For now, the White House has confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that the threat of sanction is only aimed at WeChat. But the wording is "vague enough to let the US administration extend the scope of the decree to the rest of Tencent's activities," said TechCrunch.
Such a prospect would risk causing an earthquake in the entertainment industry. Tencent is, in fact, the world number 1 in video games, has acquired 6% of Universal Music and holds the distribution rights in China for Sony's music catalog. If the United States decides to ban doing business with the Chinese juggernaut, companies like the American leader of the video game Activision, Riot Game (creator of the very popular League of Legend game) or Epic Games (originally of Fortnite) may have to part ways with a major investor.
By attacking Tencent, Donald Trump is therefore taking the risk of making a wide range of collateral victims, from the teenager who lets off steam behind his screen on Fortnite to the rich businessman who dreams of conquering the Chinese market .
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