WASHINGTON—President Trump’s actions targeting the Chinese social-media apps TikTok and
are driven by concerns over collection of American users’ data and longstanding complaints about Chinese business tactics, a top administration official said Friday.
“The two big concerns for the American people must be national security and privacy,” said Peter Navarro, an economic adviser to the president and who has been one of the White House’s toughest critics on China. “This is a huge problem with Chinese mobile apps.”
“They can track, surveil, and monitor while acting as a vacuum cleaner for data or other personal or business information that may wind up in the hands of the Chinese Community Party or People’s Liberation Army,” Mr. Navarro said in an interview.
The Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment in response to Mr. Navarro’s comments. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said earlier that Beijing strongly opposed what it called an unreasonable crackdown on Chinese companies.
Late Thursday, Mr. Trump issued two executive orders that could prevent the apps from being downloaded to phones in the U.S. via the Apple or Google stores. The orders bar people in the U.S. or subject to U.S. jurisdiction from transactions with the China-based owners of the apps, effective 45 days from Thursday.
TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., said the order was done “without due process” and threatened legal action in response. A spokesperson for Tencent Holdings Ltd., which operates the WeChat app and is based in Shenzhen, China, said the company was reviewing the order.
The implementation and full ramifications of the orders remained unknown Friday.
The actions surprised the companies, who were given no advance warning and scrambled to understand the order, according to people familiar with matter. The order added a new layer of uncertainty to the talks for
Mr. Trump had already taken aim at TikTok, which is being looked at for possible sale to Microsoft, but his move against WeChat triggered some surprise, representing an escalation of tension with China.
In addition to national security concerns, Mr. Trump’s aggressive actions have also been driven by his frustration over the coronavirus pandemic and China, according to people familiar with his thinking. Publicly, he has blamed the outbreak on Beijing and questioned whether the nation’s leaders purposefully failed to contain it to spread economic consequences around the globe.
Privately, Mr. Trump has faulted China, and its handling of the virus, for jeopardizing his reelection chances, according to White House officials and advisers outside the administration.
“Our attitude on China has changed greatly since the China virus hit us,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday, when asked about his push to ban TikTok in the U.S. “I think it changed greatly. It hit the world, and it shouldn’t have. They should have been able to stop it. So, we feel differently.”
TikTok says it has about 100 million monthly users in the U.S., and denies it would hand over user data to the Chinese government.
WeChat, owned by Tencent Holdings Ltd., is used by more than a billion people in China, and is a key link between China and its overseas diaspora. In the U.S., 19 million people use WeChat daily and it has been used by a range of businesses, from
for e-commerce and marketing.
Mr. Trump has faced pressure from conservatives to take a tougher line on China and top lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been raising concern about data collection and national security. On Thursday, the Senate voted to prohibit federal employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices. And Friday, the U.S. placed sanctions on senior Chinese officials over Beijing’s Hong Kong policy.
“These actions are being taken against the backdrop of more than a decade of mistrust in which the Chinese Communist Party has stole trillions of dollars of American wealth through cyber hacking, traditional espionage and forced technology transfer,” Mr. Navarro said in an interview.
Such issues were to be partly addressed in the trade accord Mr. Trump worked out with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The coronavirus pandemic has hurt both economies, however, limiting the effect of first phase product purchases, and putting in doubt future negotiations, which were to address structural concerns.
Critics say Mr. Trump’s moves against the technology companies raise free speech issues.
“The Supreme Court held 50 years ago that the First Amendment protects Americans’ right to receive information from abroad,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “The privacy and security concerns with platforms like these are real, but we should be wary of setting a precedent that would give this president, and every future one, broad power to interfere with Americans’ access to media.”
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