TikTok’s censorship problem

Access Archive


Dear Access member,

We’re taking tomorrow off for the American holiday of Thanksgiving. If something huge breaks, we’ll send a note, otherwise, we’ll be back in your inbox on Friday. If you celebrate it, have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

If you’re in New York on December 4, you might be interested in an evening event from SupChina: The Greater Bay Area – China’s plan to build the world’s first mega city.

Our word of the day is Thanksgiving (感恩节 gǎn ēn jié). 

—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief   

Video by Feroza Aziz — a 17-year-old girl from New Jersey — censored by TikTok, on Twitter here: “Use your phone that you’re using right now to search up what’s happening in China, how they’re getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there.” 

1. TikTok’s censorship problem 

TikTok — the short-video app owned by a Chinese company that has become popular among young Americans — has been the subject of growing scrutiny in the U.S. for several months, but this month, action began in Washington, D.C. 

  • At the beginning of November, the U.S. government announced a national security investigation into Beijing-based Bytedance, the parent company.

  • Bytedance’s investors, including Sequoia Capital and SoftBank, view growth in the U.S. as key to achieving their goal of an initial public offering late next year, so the company began a public relations campaign.

  • “No, TikTok does not censor videos that displease China,” Alex Zhu (朱骏 Zhū Jùn), head of TikTok, told the New York Times (porous paywall). “And no, it does not share user data with China, or even with its Beijing-based parent company. And even if the Chinese leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 himself asked the company to censor or hand over data, Zhu said, ‘I would turn him down.’”

  • It’s simply not credible for a Chinese company that wants to survive in the People’s Republic to refuse a direct order from Xi, who must be obeyed, we noted earlier this week. As one “former employee in TikTok’s Los Angeles office” told the Wall Street Journal (paywall): “We’re a Chinese company,” this person said. “We answer to China.”

  • And now this. From CNBC:

TikTok’s director of creator community Kudzi Chikumbu on Tuesday echoed the words of his chief in an interview with…CNBC’s Closing Bell.

“We don’t remove content based on sensitivities around China or other governments,” 

As he appeared on the show, the Washington Post reported that a 17-year-old user in New Jersey, Feroza Aziz, was locked out of her account after she posted a viral video criticizing the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority.  

  • After several media reports on Aziz, including by the New York Times (porous paywall), she tweeted: “UPDATE: my tik tok is back up…very suspicious.”

What will TikTok do next? 

Reuters says that Bytedance is seeking to “ringfence its TikTok app” so that it can run independently from the parent company’s operations in China. According to Reuters’ sources: 

  • Bytedance “completed the separation of TikTok’s product and business development, marketing and legal teams from those of its Chinese social media app Douyin in the third quarter of this year… During the summer, it also hired an external consultant to carry out audits on the integrity of the personal data it stores.”

  • TikTok says its user data is stored “entirely in the United States, with a backup in Singapore. It has also said that the Chinese government does not have any jurisdiction over TikTok content.”

  • There is a new push in Mountain View, California, for TikTok to set up a team that will “oversee data management [and] determine whether Chinese-based engineers should have access to TikTok’s database, and monitor their activity.”

  • “TikTok is also hiring more U.S. engineers to reduce its reliance on staff in China… TikTok employs about 400 people in the United States,” and about 50,000 worldwide.  

What about WeChat, the elephant in the room? 

In our January Red Paper, we suggested that it was only a matter of time before WeChat, the messaging-and-everything-else app from Tencent, drew the attention of American lawmakers and activists for censorship or something else. That hasn’t really happened yet, but there has been a steady trickle of media reports. 

Here is the latest report on WeChat censorship, from the Verge, which cites a Texas resident whose WeChat account was shut down for posting about the Hong Kong elections, which prompted him to join a “WhatsApp group for Chinese Americans who’ve recently been censored on WeChat.” This was Tencent’s explanation:

In a statement emailed to The Verge, a Tencent spokesperson said, “Tencent operates in a complex regulatory environment, both in China and elsewhere. Like any global company, a core tenant [sic] is that we comply with local laws and regulations in the markets where we operate.”

The company emphasized that WeChat and Weixin are separate apps with separate rules. “If you register with a Chinese mobile number (+86), you will be using Wēixìn [微信], the version for Chinese users. If you register by any other method you will be using WeChat, the version for international users. Weixin and WeChat use different servers, with data stored in different locations. WeChat’s servers are outside of China and not subject to Chinese law, while Weixin’s servers are in China and subject to Chinese law.”

We can expect that statement to be tested frequently in the coming months. WeChat is also bound to come under scrutiny for misinformation about the 2020 American elections, which will, no doubt, spread like the common cold on WeChat groups run by U.S. residents. 

2. A lull in the U.S.-China techno-trade war?  

A quiet day in the U.S.-China techno-trade war (day 510): 

It’s all copacetic before Thanksgiving. That’s the message officials from both the U.S. and China are giving about the trade talks. The latest from Trumpland is yesterday’s comment from the president that the “United States and China are close to agreement on the first phase of a trade deal.” Today, the People’s Daily seems to agree:

Top trade negotiators for China and the United States discussed solving issues regarding each other’s core concerns and reached consensus on properly addressing related issues in a phone call on Tuesday morning, the Ministry of Commerce said. 

American pork and soybean sales to China made for stronger-than-expected agricultural sales to China this year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data cited by Successful Farming

“Moving to offset the impact his trade war has had on rural America, President Trump has bypassed Congress to send some $20 billion in aid to farmers, mostly going to a bundle of states that are essential to his reelection chances next year,” reports the Los Angeles Times (porous paywall).

The payments have ranged from as little as $2 for some small-scale farmers to more than $1 million each for some corporate agricultural enterprises…

The payments are likely to reach nearly $25 billion by early next year, making them roughly twice the net cost to taxpayers of President Obama’s auto industry bailout during the Great Recession of 2008. Even so, they may fall short of fully covering farmers’ losses from the trade war with China or fully mitigating the political fallout Trump has faced in some Midwestern communities.

Tractor and farm equipment manufacturer Deere “delivered a more cautious outlook than expected for the year ahead as simmering U.S.-China trade tensions and difficult growing conditions keep North American farmers from replacing large equipment… The shares tumbled to a six-week low,” reports Bloomberg.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

3. Is Hong Kong in its ‘death throes’?

Two months into the Hong Kong protests this year, the respected lawyer Dan Harris wrote on the China Law Blog, “Not sure why nobody has just come out and said this yet, but Hong Kong as an international business and financial center is no more.” This week, he elaborated in comments to the Guardian: “It’s finished as an international business center because it was based on trust, safety and the rule of law and that’s all gone. Companies are looking to leave. No one is thinking of moving in.” 

Veteran journalist Ian Johnson takes a similar view in the New York Review of Books, and he blames Beijing for neglecting and abusing the city: 

We are witnessing Hong Kong’s descent from leading international city to collateral damage in Beijing’s rise to a strident superpower. While the activists have made their mistakes, the Hong Kong protests are mostly an epic failure of China’s soft power… 

…[Beijing has] failed to install visionary leaders who might have helped Hong Kong retain its place among the handful of truly key global cities. Instead, the city has been run by a series of Beijing-approved mediocrities, all of whom have either resigned in disgrace or been engulfed in crises. All the city’s chief executives were fatally hampered by having to defer on all important decisions to Beijing, making them more like colonial governors than autonomous rulers of a dynamic metropolis.

This is reflected in the government’s mishandling of the current protests…the protesters’ anger stems from the structural violence that Beijing has stealthily inflicted on them over the past decade. This includes the gradual but steady erosion of liberties [as well as] Beijing’s unwillingness to follow through on written promises of universal suffrage… 

In light of this betrayal, we can see the past half year’s violence for what it is…the death throes of a great city, played out on its own streets for the world to see.  

Some took issue with Johnson’s description of Hong Kong’s urban core as “about as exciting as a Chinese provincial capital.” Wrote Hong Kong-based author Antony Dapiran, “HK now is the most alive it has been in the 20 years I have lived here. Hong Kong is a contested space & contested spaces are interesting spaces. Arts & culture flourishing. Lively independent media. Engaged grass-roots community groups (the real story behind District Council election results).” 

But SupChina’s Anthony Tao points out that the “death throes” analogy is apt: “Hong Kong is indeed as alive now as ever, but sticking with our metaphors, that’s also kind of what a ‘death throe’ is: a final gasping, anguished flurry of life.”

—Lucas Niewenhuis


As China’s domestic gaming market faces increasingly stringent regulation, many companies in the sector have started to focus more on overseas markets. Among the most successful is startup Lilith Games whose ads for the popular “Rise of Kingdoms” (ROK) strategy series are often peppered across western social media platforms. 

The most recent ROK title pulled in more than $60 million from abroad in October, helping the startup to beat both Tencent and NetEase in overseas mobile game revenue for the month.

Angela Merkel said Europe should set up an agency that certifies components for the region’s fifth-generation wireless networks, in a bid to address safety concerns over equipment from Chinese suppliers including Huawei Technologies Co.

The agency could set standards for components built into Europe’s 5G networks and be modeled on the European Medicines Agency, which evaluates pharmaceutical drugs in the European Union, the German chancellor said Wednesday in parliament. 

France will not follow the position of the United States and bar Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. from supplying gear for its 5G mobile network, Reuters reported Monday, citing comments from a French minister.

Speaking to French media outlet BFM Business television, Junior Economy Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said (in French) there would be “no exclusion” of Huawei, although the government will reserve the power to subject all 5G equipment suppliers to national security checks.

China’s embrace of mobile payments is showing no signs of stopping.

The country’s banks processed 59.5 billion electronic payments in the third quarter, representing a total of 612.9 trillion yuan ($87.2 trillion), according to figures published [in Chinese] Friday by the central bank.

Of those payments, 27.3 billion were mobile transactions, representing a year-on-year rise of 61.1%. A total of 86.1 trillion yuan changed hands via mobile, an increase of 31.6% from the same period last year.


Chinese scientist Hè Jiànkuí 贺建奎 shocked the world by claiming he had helped make the first gene-edited babies. One year later, mystery surrounds his fate as well as theirs.

He has not been seen publicly since January, his work has not been published and nothing is known about the health of the babies.


The Chinese government’s carefully constructed narrative around its Xinjiang detention centers appears to have been shattered by hundreds of pages of leaked documents published by Western media over the last two weeks…

But don’t expect the Chinese government to demolish the camps and apologize…as far as Beijing is concerned, the world is on its side

—Risa Hontiveros vows to push for an investigation by the Senate into claims that Beijing can control the electricity network

—The operator has denied the accusations but Hontiveros says the controversy is a further example of Rodrigo Duterte cosying up to China

For the first time, China now has more diplomatic posts around the world than any other country, an Australian think tank says.

According to the Lowy Institute, China overtook the US in 2019, with 276 embassies and other representative offices globally.

China’s religious leaders met in Beijing on Tuesday to work on ways to reinterpret religious doctrine to bring it in line with socialism, as the ruling Communist Party presses on with its campaign to “Sinicise” religion.

The meeting, convened by Wāng Yáng 汪洋, the country’s top official overseeing religious affairs, focused on how to ensure that religious dogma “meets the requirements of the progressing times” and fits “core socialist values”, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Beijing has accused Taipei of trying to deceive the Taiwanese public for political gain by launching an investigation into allegations made by Wáng Lìqiáng 王立強, the self-proclaimed Chinese spy who is seeking asylum in Australia.

The comments came after officials from the Investigation Bureau on Monday questioned two executives from a Hong Kong company about charges levelled against them by Wang while they were on a visit to the island.

Seven years ago, we blogged about how we were getting calls from people who had visited a brothel in China and then were being threatened by alleged police officers seeking money…

And then total silence…. Until recently.

—The online scam, which was run out of Kota Kinabalu, targeted victims from China

—This comes as Chinese con artists move their operations to Southeast Asia as the mainland clamps down on scams


Supermodel and actor Godfrey Gao (高以翔 Gāo Yǐxiáng), who grew up in Canada and spent his career mostly in Taiwan and the mainland, died on November 27 after suffering a heart attack while filming a Chinese reality TV show.

His death has enraged fans, who blame the producers for neglecting safety standards to pursue ratings. 

A new regulation by China’s Ministry of Education aims to grant primary and middle school teachers more room in punishing their students in order to achieve better teaching results.

The regulation…lists punishments available to teachers in three categories based on the level of severity of the offense, including naming and shaming, forced standing that lasts no longer than one class session, and suspension of class for no longer than one week.

Chinese sci-fi writers exchanged with peers from 14 countries at a three-day China International Science Fiction Conference, which ended Sunday in southwest Chinese city of Chengdu…the conference attracted more than 360 writers, experts and representatives from the science fiction sector, including 60 from overseas.

  • At the close of the conference, Sichuan University and Sichuan Association for Science and Technology jointly established China’s “first science fiction research academy,” Xinhua noted in a separate report.


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Talking to my mother about Hong Kong

As Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong society, Hongkongers fear losing not just their economic status but also their way of life. Yangyang Cheng, a particle physicist in the U.S., who is originally from China, has been watching from afar the protests that have rocked Hong Kong. She talks every day about them with her mother, who lives in mainland China. 

They often clash.


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