For months now, the company TikTok has been in the news, and not just because it is the preferred video sharing service of portly nurses. The company has been at the center of both a strange bidding war and a controversy over its ties to the Chinese communist party. TikTok is owned by a Chinese firm and like all Chinese firms that means it is controlled by the communist party. The American government has said the parent company is a national security threat.
It is the national security issue that has created the bidding war. The Trump administration said the parent company, ByteDance, must sell the service to an American firm or the company will be banned from the US. Trump has issued a couple of executive orders banning the app from phone stores. The claim is the Chinese communist party is using the videos of chubby nurses dancing in empty hospitals to undermine the American people’s faith in their rulers.
The national security issue is a bit ridiculous. China is spying like crazy on western companies and western governments. Nothing is too small or too trivial. They will steal anything not nailed down. It is not just industrial and military espionage. A New York City policeman has been arrested for spying on behalf of the Chinese. They say he was reporting to officials at the Chinese Consulate in New York on the activities of other ethnic Tibetans in the New York area.
The fact is, if the rulers really cared all that much about Chinese espionage, they would treat China the way they treated the Soviet Union. Travel would be highly restricted and business ties would be highly regulated. Instead, American firms are free to be plundered by China in exchange for a quick buck. Chinese nationals pour into America and every Western country. They are given free access to whatever they like. TikTok is a tiny issue compared to all the other problems.
In fairness, Trump is the first president to take the Chinese threat seriously and he has faced a wall of opposition from the usual suspects. While this TikTok deal is small potatoes, they may see it as a useful bit of symbolism. It brings the issue of Chinese spying into the public debate. It also touches on the immigration issue. Why are we importing people to work in American companies and research labs from a country actively engaged in wide-scale espionage against us?
Putting that aside, there is a bigger question. Why are the oligarchs fighting with one another over a chance to buy a piece of this company? So far, Oracle, Walmart, Microsoft and Twitter have been the most aggressive. Twitter makes some sense as the TikTok videos made by chubby nurses are usually posted on Twitter. Microsoft makes some sense, as it lets them get back onto people’s mobile devices. That way they can harvest their data and sell it like other social media firms.
What makes no sense is why Oracle or Walmart would be involved. What makes even less sense is why the price is $20 billion for a tiny slice of the firm and no access to their proprietary technology. What could Walmart gain from owning a piece of this company, other than a small return on the investment? What would Oracle need from a silly application like this? They make business applications like database systems and enterprise software. Why would they want this?
Then there is the media fascination with it. State run media in America is a bit different than in China, in that it represents the permanent ruling class and its servants in the bureaucracy, not the figurative leaders of government. They have been following this story like a pennant race. The New York Times has done hundreds of stories on this since it started. The same is true of the Washington Post. Even the Wall Street Journal has been obsessed with the bidding war for TikTok.
An added bit of mystery to this story is the fact that the proposed deal with Oracle does not include the company’s secret technology. Everyone understands that the app itself is worthless, but the secret technology has value. Supposedly, TikTok has cutting edge facial recognition technology and their behavioral analysis algorithm is better than anything Silicon Valley has created. That’s the real value, but the proposed deals with American firms excludes that technology.
As presented, nothing about this story makes a lot of sense. If this company was a serious national security concern, the government would just ban it from American mobile devices. Apple and Google have no trouble banning apps from their platforms for political reasons. Twitter could block all TikTok videos, thus collapsing the chubby nurse TikTok market. There’s no need for all of this drama if national security is the real reason behind this story.
A more likely reason is the Silicon Valley oligarchs see China as a threat to their interests around the world. Unlike American competitors, Apple and Google cannot just ban China from their devices. The Chinese would then flood the world with second copy phones and ban these companies from the Chinese market. What they are doing is getting the US government and allies like Walmart and Oracle to do their bidding for them, so they can keep their hands clean.
Then there is the Indian factor. Silicon Valley is slowly being taken over by South Asians, who have an ethnic interest in opposing Chinese tech. India would like to see the US reposition itself in Asia, by moving manufacturing and technology from China to India, so a cold war with China works for them. The people who put Kamala Harris on the Democrat ticket are certainly capable of engineering this TikTok story. This is how ethnic politics works in an empire.
The most salient issue is that nothing about this drama has anything to do with what is best for the American people. Trump makes some noises about Chinese espionage being bad for America, but what he really means is bad for the military industrial complex and the private sector oligarchs. If it was good for those interests, the American government would allow China to conduct human sacrifices on American college campuses. That’s another reality of the empire.
Of course, there is another angle here. Judges keep stepping in to block the government from banning this service from American phones. Yet, when it is American owned tech, like Gab, getting banned from phones, no one blinks. The political class falls all over themselves to explain why that form of censorship is good. The Chinese communist party has more first amendment protections than Americans. Maybe Gab should relocate to Beijing.
In the end, the TikTok story is mostly about China. On the one hand, social media players see China as a competitor and a partner. They want access to the market, but they don’t want to compete with Chinese tech in America. Walmart, Microsoft and Oracle get to play the white hat with this and curry favor with the Chinese. The Indians get to use the US government as a weapon against their competitor. This is now the great game in the late stages of the American empire.
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