The world’s most popular short video app continues to be in the crosshairs of politicians globally.
On Monday night, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the United States is “certainly looking at” banning TikTok over concerns that it could be used by the Beijing government as a surveillance and propaganda tool.
On the heel of Pompeo’s statement, TikTok announced that it would pull out of Hong Kong, which is facing an unprecedented wave of control from the Beijing government after the promulgation of the national security law.
“In light of recent events, we’ve decided to stop operations of the TikTok app in Hong Kong,” said a TikTok spokesperson. The company declined further comment on the decision.
The vagueness of the statement leaves many questions unanswered. One has to wonder whether ByteDance will relaunch a censored version of the app in Hong Kong, presumably replacing it with its sister app Douyin that’s operated by ByteDance’s Chinese team.
ByteDance, founded by Chinese serial entrepreneur Zhang Yiming, has been working to disassociate TikTok from its Chinese ownership and Beijing censorship. Efforts have ranged from keeping an overseas data center for TikTok that’s supposedly out of reach by the Chinese authority, giving outside experts a glimpse into its moderation process, through to hiring Disney’s Kevin Mayer as the app’s new global face.
But its response to Hong Kong’s circumstances, presumably made by Mayer who is now the app’s chief executive, is a stark contrast to the decisions by Western tech giants. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Telegram uniformly said this week they would either stop or suspend data review requests from the Hong Kong government.
Many see their move as an outright rejection of Chinese censorship and surveillance, while others think they are simply buying time to ponder their next step in Hong Kong: exit voluntarily, wait and get banned, or comply with Beijing rules — which seems the least likely.
TikTok said it had 150,000 users in Hong Kong as of last September, a nearly neglectable share given the app had 2 billion downloads globally by April. TechCrunch understands that the app operates a very small team in Hong Kong, so the impact of this regional exit on staff looks to be limited across the company.