The U.S. and other governments should make decisions about Chinese tech companies based on human rights considerations, including the companies’ impact on the rights of people around the world—not just their own citizens.
The Chinese companies Tencent, owner of WeChat, and ByteDance, which owns TikTok, play a significant role in facilitating and entrenching the Chinese government’s censorship, surveillance, and propaganda regime inside China. There is emerging evidence that they also have a debilitating influence on rights outside the country.
ByteDance’s products catering to Chinese users—including news aggregator Jinri Toutiao, search engine Toutiao Search, and Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok—all censor what the Chinese government considers “politically sensitive” content. Articles that mention the names of top People’s Republic of China (PRC) leaders, for example, or videos uploaded by Uighurs to draw attention to their missing family members are quickly removed. The company also censored content it considered critical of the PRC government on its news aggregator app in Indonesia from 2018 to mid-2020.
Through Douyin, ByteDance worked closely with the PRC police to disseminate state propaganda whitewashing Beijing’s abuses in Xinjiang. ByteDance also signed an agreement with the Ministry of Public Security to promote “the influence and credibility” of police departments nationwide.
Similarly, WeChat censors and surveils users on the PRC government’s behalf and hands over user data to authorities when “sensitive” information is discovered. There have been numerous reports about people getting harassed, detained, or imprisoned for their private messages on WeChat. A man in Shandong province was sentenced to 10 months in prison for sending a single video clip referencing an anti-government campaign to a U.S.-based friend. Uighurs and Tibetans have been imprisoned for using WeChat to share religious materials. A study by Citizen Lab in Canada showed that WeChat also surveils its users outside the PRC to build up the database it uses to censor PRC-registered accounts.
ByteDance and Tencent may have enriched many people’s lives by facilitating expression, but their very success became possible at least in part because they actively assist the PRC government’s suppression of speech.
Last year, the U.S. government sanctioned dozens of Chinese tech companies for their role in human rights violations in China. All governments grappling with Beijing’s increasingly global tech-enabled censorship and surveillance need to develop legitimate, necessary, and transparent responses that take into account how the human rights of all users—not just their own citizens—are impacted.
Ensuring that Chinese tech companies are held accountable for facilitating human rights violations while not creating a race to the bottom and not endangering the future of an open, interoperable global Internet is a delicate matter. But there are solutions with fewer potential negative effects: The U.S. and other governments should provide alternate channels of communication and invest in open-source technologies that enable people in the PRC to more easily circumvent censorship so that they do not get trapped in the black hole of Chinese companies’ censorship and surveillance. Domestically, those governments need to strengthen their own data protection laws so the privacy of users can be protected from the abusive practices of all companies, Chinese or others.