TikTok will switch off its app in Hong Kong within days, the platform said last night following Beijing’s security crackdown in the city.
The video app said it was was ‘stopping operations of the TikTok app in Hong Kong’ in light of ‘recent events’ – referring to a new security law which critics say will allow the mainland’s Communist Party-controlled courts to punish dissent in Hong Kong.
The move by TikTok, which is owned by China-based ByteDance, came as Facebook, Google and Twitter put a hold on requests by Hong Kong authorities for information on users.
TikTok has consistently denied sharing any user data with authorities in China, and is adamant that it does not intend to start agreeing to such requests.
Nonetheless, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo says Washington is ‘certainly looking at’ banning China-based apps including TikTok.
TikTok’s announcement comes after a security crackdown in Hong Kong (pictured, a protester is pinned down by riot police in the city last week)
The company, now run by former Walt Disney Co executive Kevin Mayer, has said in the past that the app’s user data is not stored in China.
TikTok has also said previously that it would not comply with any requests made by the Chinese government to censor content, nor has it ever been asked to do so.
The Hong Kong region is a small, loss-making market for the company, one source familiar with the matter said. Last August, TikTok reported it had attracted 150,000 users in Hong Kong.
Globally, TikTok has been downloaded more than two billion times through the Apple and Google app stores after the first quarter this year, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower.
The source said the move was made because it was not clear if Hong Kong would now fall entirely under Beijing’s jurisdiction in light of the new law.
TikTok was designed so it could not be accessed by mainland China. Its equivalent on the mainland is called Douyin.
In the Communist-ruled mainland, foreign social media platforms are blocked by China’s ‘Great Firewall’.
There are no plans currently to introduce Douyin to the Hong Kong market, a ByteDance spokesman said.
Although Douyin is not available on overseas app stores, it has gathered more users than TikTok in Hong Kong, according to a second source familiar with the situation. Users can download the app while in the mainland or by switching accounts.
‘Douyin has lots of users in Hong Kong and will continue to serve the users there,’ ByteDance China CEO Zhang Nan said in a statement.
TikTok has consistently denied sharing any user data with authorities in China , and is adamant that it does not intend to start agreeing to such requests
Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said TikTok’s move highlighted the dilemma faced by Chinese companies trying to internationalise, adding that it was ‘inevitable’.
‘You have to follow local policies and try not to offend the Chinese government and the public. ByteDance’s separation of TikTok (from Douyin) was the same strategy.’
Facebook and WhatsApp say they will freeze the review of government requests for user data in Hong Kong, ‘pending further assessment of the National Security Law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with international human rights experts’.
Twitter and Google also said they would not comply with information requests by Hong Kong authorities in the immediate future.
Twitter said it had ‘grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law’.
US lawmakers have also raised concerns, saying they were worried about Chinese laws requiring domestic companies ‘to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.’
Mike Pompeo’s suggestion of a possible ban comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade and coronavirus.
‘I don’t want to get out in front of the President, but it’s something we’re looking at,’ Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News.
TikTok has become a global sensation with users sharing 15 to 60-second video clips on everything from hair dye tutorials to dance routines and gags about daily life.
It joined the EU’s disinformation code of conduct last week as tech giants seek to persuade Europe to back away from setting laws against harmful content online.