The difference between TikTok and Douyin

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Dear Access member,

The Schwarzman and Yenching scholarship programs at Peking and Tsinghua Universities in Beijing are dedicated to building bridges and mutual understanding between China and the West. Are they working? Perhaps not, according to Noah Lachs, a recent graduate of one of them, whose essay we published today: Are Chinese and Western perspectives incompatible in our post-truth times?

One paragraph in particular stands out to me:

The most shocking piece of post-truth politics I experienced came with regards to Xinjiang. On three occasions when I broached this subject (twice with Chinese students outside the Schwarzman program), I was told that Uyghurs were responsible for a “genocide against Han Chinese people.” This is not an arguable principle but a falsification. It is not possible to begin a dialogue on human rights or counter-extremism when such assumptions persist. This is not necessarily a problem a study program can resolve, but it suggests the limitations to mutual understanding when a propaganda machine exists in the background.

Our word of the day today is Bytedance, (字节跳动 zìjié tiàodòng), the company behind short video app Dǒuyīn 抖音, whose international version is known as TikTok. 

—Lucas Niewenhuis, Associate Editor

1. The difference between TikTok and Douyin

For the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino describes in gorgeous detail (porous paywall — definitely worth the click) the addictive algorithms of TikTok, a.k.a. 抖音 dǒuyīn. This is the video app from Beijing-based Bytedance that has expanded beyond China to hook millions of teenagers in the U.S., India, and elsewhere. But Duoyin and TikTok are not exactly the same:

Though it remains broadly similar to TikTok, Douyin has become more advanced than its global counterpart, particularly with respect to ecommerce. With three taps on Douyin, you can buy a product featured in a video; you can book a stay at a hotel after watching a video shot there; you can take virtual tours of a city’s stores and restaurants, get coupons for those establishments, and later post geo-tagged video reviews. Fabian Bern, the head of a marketing company that works closely with Douyin influencers, told me that some power users can make “fifteen to twenty thousand U.S. dollars” on a shopping holiday like Singles’ Day.

Chinese social media consultant Matthew Brennan added a video on Twitter yesterday, demonstrating how Douyin “now has in-video search. Search someone’s face to find more videos of them. Search in-video products or clothes and buy directly.” What’s on Weibo has more detail on this new feature: TikTok’s in-video search function (and how to activate it)

Douyin also has an older user base than TikTok, as it “now contains micro-vlogs, life-style content, business advice, and videos from local police.” Some rural city governments “have begun advertising their regions’ produce and tourist attractions on the app.” 

Is TikTok censoring content sensitive to the Chinese authorities? It appears so: footage of the protests in Hong Kong was strangely completely absent from the platform, according to a Washington Post report last week. Tolentino considers this question:

It’s true that the Hong Kong user base is not large, relatively speaking — TikTok told me that the app had fewer than a hundred and fifty thousand daily active users there — though that is the case for Twitter, too, and videos from the protests have gone viral on that platform. TikTok is generally thought of as a place for goofing off rather than for engaging in political discourse, and a TikTok executive dismissed the idea that the company was manually or algorithmically suppressing Hong Kong-related content. But one of the risks of giving our attention to entertainment governed by privately controlled algorithms is that those who own the algorithms will always be able to say that they are merely delivering what we want to see.

Other articles that we have in recent months highlighted about TikTok, which indicate that its parent company Bytedance may be the next Chinese company to face scrutiny from the U.S. government:

—Lucas Niewenhuis

2. Trump attacks China, defends religious freedom, totally ignores Uyghurs

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly today, President Trump devoted “over four minutes” to a markedly more critical message on China than his address to the same hall last year, in which he had “heaped praise on Chinese President Xí Jìnpíng 习近平,” the South China Morning Post reports. Two notable quotes:

  • After China’s WTO accession, “Not only has China declined to adopt promised reforms, it has embraced an economic model dependent on massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers and the theft of intellectual property and also trade secrets on a grand scale.” 

  • “The world fully expects that the Chinese government will honour its binding treaty made with the British and registered with the United Nations in which China commits to protect Hong Kong’s freedom, legal system and democratic ways of life.”

Many in Washington will likely see the tough love from Trump to Beijing, compared with the friendly talk in previous years, as a move of leadership. 

But there is one China-related issue which Trump has still never talked about, and today made more obvious than ever that he is intentionally avoiding leading on: Xinjiang. Reuters reports:

U.S. President Donald Trump called for an end to religious persecution on Monday at a U.S. event on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations featuring a woman whose Uyghur father has been imprisoned in China… 

Trump did not specifically mention Xinjiang and he left the meeting before the woman, Jewher Ilham, spoke, but Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listened as she slammed the Chinese government. Pompeo said her father — a Uighur scholar — is serving a life sentence as a prisoner of conscience… 

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will host a separate event on Tuesday on the “human rights crisis in Xinjiang” in China… 

A State Department official said at least 31 countries were expected to attend. The event will be co-hosted by the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and Britain, diplomats said.

3. ‘Drops of one-fifth or more’ in Chinese student enrollment at American universities

The Associated Press reports that U.S.-China political tensions, and increasing visa uncertainties under an American administration hostile to foreigners and Chinese students in particular, have led to dramatic drops in Chinese student enrollment at American universities. The numbers cited:

  • A 34 percent drop in new Chinese graduate students at Bentley University in Massachusetts. 

  • A 23 percent drop in Chinese student enrollment at the University of Vermont. 

  • A 20 percent drop in Chinese student enrollment at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

Other universities haven’t released numbers, but it seems quite likely that the University of Illinois could soon make a claim on an insurance policy it took out two years ago that “will pay US$60 million if revenue from Chinese students drops 20 per cent or more.” 

More updates related to the U.S.-China trade war:

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China made “over 800 detailed recommendations to the Chinese Government, spread across 33 industry sectors and horizontal issues” in a new European Business in China – Position Paper 2019/2020. The core complaint — the need for reform of state-owned enterprises — is shared with the Trump administration. 

Trump’s hyperfocus on agriculture was evident out in an awkward exchange with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in which he “questioned a decision by his top trade negotiators to ask Chinese officials to delay a planned trip to U.S. farming regions after trade talks last week,” Reuters reports

“Chinese importers bought about 10 boatloads of U.S. soybeans,” or about 600,000 tonnes according to Reuters, but Bloomberg clarifies, “That’s not a huge amount and would look like more normal purchases in the absence of Trump’s tariffs. In the 12 months through August 2017, the last full marketing year before the trade war started, the U.S. exported a total of 36 million tons of soybeans to China.”

“Apple will continue to manufacture its Mac Pro computer in Austin, Texas, the company announced on Monday, just days after the Trump administration granted the company tariff exemptions for Mac Pro components made in China,” according to Politico

4. Meng Wanzhou back to court, and not for the last time

The other side of U.S.-China trade tensions, of course, is technology tensions. That Washington identified this as a core concern was apparent since the U.S. Trade Representative released its “section 301” report that rocketed Made in China 2025 to Western media attention, and that Beijing identified this a core concern was made most plain by its hostage taking in response to the arrest of Huawei CFO Mèng Wǎnzhōu 孟晚舟 late last year. 

Meng’s case considering her potential extradition to the U.S. proceeded in Vancouver today. The Star Vancouver reports:

Lawyers specializing in extradition predict the case of embattled Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou will likely take a decade to resolve and may change the way the Canada Border Services Agency does business.

Any person with the financial resources to pay counsel can draw out due process in the courts, said Richard Kurland, a lawyer and federal policy analyst who is not involved in the case.

As if to emphasize the point that she is wealthy and powerful enough to keep a legal standoff going indefinitely, Meng “arrived wearing an Hermès handbag and Jimmy Choo heels below her ankle GPS monitor,” the SCMP noted

The Star Vancouver with more details on the cases (note plural): 

Meng appeared in court on Monday for matters of disclosure ahead of her criminal hearing, which is scheduled to begin in January. An appearance for her separate civil case, in which Meng is suing the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) for breaching her Charter rights during her arrest, was scheduled for Monday morning but was moved.

At a hearing weeks ago, the judge expressed concern the civil lawsuit was “just a ruse” to get information for the extradition proceedings. Defence lawyers for the extradition case are trying to force the court to release documents they say will prove meddling by U.S. authorities in the arrest.

Get ready for this drama to drag on for months or even years longer, and for Beijing’s Canadian hostages, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, to see neither lawyers nor the light of day until Meng is released. 

—Lucas Niewenhuis


China does not have a timetable for the launch of its new digital currency, its central bank governor said on Tuesday… with some media speculating it could be launched as soon as November 11 to coincide with the Singles’ Day online shopping festival.

China, the world’s largest tobacco market, may introduce rules for the e-cigarette industry as early as next month amid growing health concerns and reports that some products contain toxic elements, state media reported. 

The regulations would cover e-cigarette devices, packaging and the liquids that are used in them, the semi-official China News Service reported on Monday, citing an unnamed source. 

Alibaba has purchased 33% of its financial services affiliate Ant Financial, the companies announced Tuesday, closing a deal which had dragged on since early 2018.

Ant Financial is one of Alibaba’s closest affiliates. Abundant support from Alibaba has grown it into a global fintech giant overseeing units including payment platform Alipay, credit reporting system Zhima Credit, and online-only bank MYbank.

The transaction hints that Ant Financial’s long-anticipated initial public offering (IPO) could be near. Ant Financial is one of the world’s most valuable startups after closing a record $14 billion fundraise at $150 billion valuation in June.

The New Zealand government is supporting an industry push to trademark manuka honey in China and shut Australia out of the market.

Kiwi producers are to apply to the Beijing intellectual property court to obtain the Chinese certification trademark that would link the manuka name to New Zealand alone, Nine newspapers have reported.

A Chinese real estate heiress lured the father of her children to a meeting at her home to discuss a custody dispute, where her boyfriend then fatally shot the man, a California prosecutor said Monday in opening arguments of their murder trial.

Tiffany Li and her boyfriend, Kaveh Bayat then hired a friend to dispose of Keith Green’s body and took steps to cover their crime by creating alibis for themselves, prosecutor Bryan Abanto told jurors.

China is changing the way it procures drugs. The result: Prices are tumbling and eroding the once-high margins of drugmakers — both local and foreign — in the world’s second-largest pharmaceuticals market. For manufacturers, the pressure on prices is set to intensify.


The municipal health bureau in the city of Dongguan said that 103 people, including the 99 children, are still being treated following a “possible foodborne disease outbreak.”… 

In its statement, the health bureau said the outbreak could be salmonella — a common bacterium that infects humans through contaminated water or food — and that relevant authorities are investigating any suspicious food items served in the school cafeteria. Authorities also ordered the school to suspend classes on Monday and Tuesday to disinfect the premises.


Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said that she was heartbroken upon hearing that many of the arrested protesters were under the age of 18, adding that children might not have known political issues were “not that simple.”… 

There have been nine cases where protesters defiled the Chinese national flag, including a 13-year-old who was arrested for allegedly burning the flag. Lam said such incidents were unacceptable and they would be followed up on in accordance with the law.

Taiwan is fortifying its defences against cyberattacks as it prepares for joint drills with the United States and more than a dozen other countries in November.

Cabinet officials said on Monday that various government and civilian agencies had upgraded their facilities and training to counter such mass intrusions…

A Taiwanese government official said…that about 60 per cent of the roughly 30 million attacks the island experienced each month came from mainland China.

  • Taiwan unveils prototype of indigenous advanced jet trainer / Focus Taiwan
    “A prototype of Taiwan’s new indigenous advanced jet trainer (AJT), named “Yung Yin (勇鷹)” or Brave Eagle, was unveiled on Tuesday, as part of the country’s effort to become more self-reliant regarding its defense.”

  • Oil speculation off the coast of Vietnam
    Exxon’s South China Sea oil project tests Chinese influence / Bloomberg (porous paywall)
    “Vietnam’s foreign ministry this month sought to shoot down rampant speculation that Exxon will sell its 64% stake in the country’s largest offshore energy project Ca Voi Xanh, or Blue Whale, a joint venture with state-owned Vietnam Oil & Gas Group some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the coast of Danang. While the project sits just outside of China’s claims in a nine-dash map of the waters, it would tap the same basin that Beijing is seeking to develop.”

  • National Day preparations
    China lights up for 70th birthday celebrations / BBC
    “The ancient city of Xi’an, and the coastal city of Qingdao came to life with tens of thousands of LED lights lighting up some of their landmarks.”
    Ahead of huge parade, China complains of ‘strange logic’ about its military / Reuters via Times of India
    “China’s military complained on Tuesday that if it displayed new weapons at next week’s huge military parade in Beijing it would be seen as a ‘show of force’, and if it didn’t then it would be blamed for a lack of transparency.”
    Over 300,000 people take part in rehearsal for China’s National Day parade / Shanghaiist
    “Chinese state media has offered a sneak peek of the festivities in the form of video from the parade’s third joint rehearsal which involved more than 300,000 people. If you’re really into soldiers marching in unison and ethnic minorities dancing, boy, are you gonna be in for a real treat!”
    Show your China pride on WeChat with this mini-program / That’s Magazine
    “WeChat launched a new mini-program today that gives users’ profile pictures a new look, with a Chinese flag at the bottom right-hand corner of their current WeChat profile pic. Aside from guoqi (national flag), other options include a ‘70’ for the PRC’s 70th anniversary and a ‘Happy National Day’ banner.”


Eleven members of a family in eastern China’s Zhejiang province went through 23 sham marriages and divorces in less than a month in an attempt to take advantage of an urban renewal project’s compensation scheme for residents…

Four members of the family have been detained, while the seven other suspects have been released on bail pending trial.

A plan to demolish one of Singapore’s most famous attractions, the Sentosa island merlion statue, as part of a S$90 million (US$65.3 million) redevelopment, has prompted a wave of nostalgia in China, the city state’s biggest tourism market… News of the demolition of the Sentosa merlion drew 90 million views on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, and prompted more than 8,200 comments by Monday afternoon.

  • Cinema — The Farewell
    Is The Farewell the olive branch the US-China culture war needs? / Guardian
    “Similar to the hype surrounding the release last year of Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood romcom to feature an all-Asian cast, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, made for a far more modest $3 million, has also generated a great wave of goodwill since its premiere at Sundance in January.”


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Are Chinese and Western perspectives incompatible in our post-truth times?

We make much ado of “building bridges” and “deepening understanding” between China and the West, especially at prestigious international degree programs like Yenching Academy at Peking University and the Schwarzman Scholarship Program at Tsinghua University. But pedagogical, structural, and political forces conspire to make this easier said than done. Increasingly, we are being reminded that it’s not different values that clash, but different realities.