Joe Biden drops Donald Trump orders seeking to ban TikTok, WeChat

·4-min read

US President Joe Biden on Wednesday revoked executive orders seeking to ban Chinese social-media apps TikTok and WeChat by former president Donald Trump, and issued a new order to review security concerns posed by these apps.

The new executive order directed the Commerce Department to assess, in the following six months, the apps associated with foreign adversaries of their potential national security implications and how American personal data is used.

The Commerce Department was asked to provide recommendations of actions needed to address the risks found at the end of the assessment. The agency was also directed to evaluate, on a continuing basis, transactions of software applications that may pose a risk for information and communication technology and services to operate properly in the US.

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“That continuing effort by foreign adversaries constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” Biden said in the executive order.

A spokesman for TikTok declined to comment on the revocation of the order. A Tencent representative cannot be reached for comment.

“We’re taking strong steps to protect Americans’ sensitive data from collection and utilisation by foreign adversaries through connected software applications; that’s what was at the heart of the executive order,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price when asked whether his department’s threat assessment of Americans downloading TikTok had changed.

Other than the TikTok and WeChat orders, Biden’s new executive order also revoked another one Trump issued in January that targeted eight other Chinese communications and financial technology software applications.

Trump relied on executive orders in his final months as president to ban Chinese companies in the US on national security grounds. China watchers have been following how the Biden administration has been dealing with these orders.

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The Biden administration’s move on Wednesday reflected the administration’s different approach towards Chinese software apps. But it showed that a concern remained regarding the collection and use of Americans’ personal data.

“The executive order puts us in much better place by creating strong criteria and a good process for decisions,” said James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“This means that they now have a sound basis for action if they decide to go after TikTok. The story is not over.”

Since Biden took office, the White House and Congress have both taken action to combat China on its economic and geopolitical ambitions, particularly on technology. On Tuesday, the Senate passed a sweeping bill to boost American chip research and production in a rare bipartisan move to make America more competitive in its rivalry with China.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in Washington on April 20. Photo: CNP via ZUMA Wire/TNS
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in Washington on April 20. Photo: CNP via ZUMA Wire/TNS

In early April, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said at a briefing with reporters that a China tech policy review was ongoing.

Without commenting on any particular company, Raimondo said her broad view is to compete with China, “what we do on offence is more important than what we do on defence”.

“We need to rebuild America in all of the ways we’re talking about today – and, by the way, do that with our allies,” she said.

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One of the revoked orders signed two weeks before Trump left office targeted eight Chinese software applications, citing potential access these apps could provide Beijing with Americans’ personal data. They included Ant Group’s Alipay, CamScanner, QQ Wallet, SHAREit, Tencent QQ, VMate, WeChat Pay and WPS Office.

(Ant Group is an affiliate of internet giant Alibaba Group Holding, which owns the South China Morning Post.)

In two separate executive orders signed last summer, Trump had aimed to block transactions with TikTok, a popular video-sharing app owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, and the WeChat messaging app owned by Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings.

Federal courts have since blocked the bans, saying the previous administration overstepped its authority. The Biden administration did not continue to appeal after the judges ruled in favour of the Chinese apps.

The proposed sale of TikTok’s US operation to Oracle and Walmart, a requirement in Trump’s executive order, was also put on shelf.

A court filing said the Commerce Department was reviewing whether Trump’s claims about TikTok’s threat to national security justified the attempts to ban it from app stores. An update to the review was due in a court case later this week.

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