China policy analysts and tech regulators have recently tried to make sense of the US threats to ban on TikTok and WeChat. What do the requirements of such a prohibition imply for tech regulation? If the US government is willing to exercise such influence over private cell phone providers, what could this mean for other forms of data? Is a whack-a-mole game of app bans really a useful way to enforce data privacy without a broader set of government rules like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation? More importantly, what is the meaning of a blanket ban—on surveillance grounds but without technical evidence—given that “sanctioned” surveillance hardware made by Chinese companies continues to be used throughout the United States?
These are all legitimate questions—if you still believe we are living in a functioning democracy. The Trump administration’s bans on WeChat and TikTok, as well as the “Clean Network” campaign, which would exclude Chinese telecom companies, cloud providers, and undersea cables from American Internet infrastructure, should instead be seen as part of its attempt to increase the power of the executive branch. While proponents of the global free market are busy worrying about a splintered Internet, they miss the bigger picture: Trump’s tech authoritarianism is accelerating the growth of corporate power.
A 2018 study showed that Trump’s supporters are motivated by racism, sexism, and anti-Chinese sentiment. So it makes sense that in a bid for re-election, the Trump administration is cultivating an anti-China stance. The specter of Beijing helps drive two main fears: a socialist “big government” and socialist “outside influence” on American politics. The “yellow peril” narrative is racist, but what’s more crucial is how that racism is deployed. With a casual nod and wink, Trump presents China as a threat to “individual freedom”—the kind of freedom that allows white domestic terrorists to bandy about guns at state capitals.
The opposition to the socialist left—both real and imagined, in the United States and abroad—is so feverish that some of Trump’s supporters are willing to see their fellow Americans die from the coronavirus rather than concede to “big government.” In other words, the neoliberal views of Trump’s base are not at odds with authoritarian power; rather, as theorists like Wendy Brown point out, such views purposely disintegrate democracy and society, making “liberty a pure instrument of power.”
Rendering China as a fearsome socialist state (despite its state capitalist reality) in order to deepen domestic oppression has historical precedent. Before the US-China “Tech Cold War” was the actual Cold War, during which “Third World” countries across Africa, Latin America, and Asia reasserted their agency in the face of European colonizers. At the time the question for American men in the echelons of power was: Would these emerging nations choose socialism or democracy?
Much of America’s foreign policy at the time was propelled by the domino theory: the idea that if a given country opted for communism, then others around it would do the same. America’s anti-Soviet foreign policy enabled political repression at home and abroad. Some $700 million was sent to South Africa alone to prop up an apartheid government under the guise of “fighting communism.” During the Cold War, anti-communism became a rallying cry for brutal crackdowns on anti-war protesters, Black leaders, and civil rights activists. The FBI conducted covert operations and surveillance against virtually anyone who challenged US imperialism and the status quo of a segregated society, wielding “communist” as a convenient accusation to justify harassment and disinformation. Countless activists and community organizers were subjected to government-led smear campaigns led by the likes of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
According to historian Clarence Lang, anti-communist efforts not only targeted dissidents; they also “served the interests of policy-makers who sought to roll back the modest achievements of the New Deal and block the further expansion of the liberal welfare state.”
There are parallels to our present moment. In response to the recent Black Lives Matter uprising, the Trump administration referred to mysterious left-wing agitators and capitalized on narratives of “outside influence” and “antidemocratic” protests. In late June, Attorney General William Barr created a task force to pursue “anti-government extremists,” a purposefully nebulous category that seemed to encompass activists against police oppression and the carceral state. According to Barr, “Although these extremists profess a variety of ideologies, they are united in their position to the core constitutional values of a democratic society governed by law.” More recently, as federal troops cracked down on protesters in Portland, Ore., the administration has continued to assert that antifa, in all its leftist glory, is ruining America.
Such narratives conveniently make room for American-style surveillance—whether through predictive policing or the monitoring of protesters using social media or Predator drones. In fact, as conversations about defunding and demilitarizing the police spread throughout the United States, it is worth noting that digital surveillance has often replaced more traditional forms of policing, and private government contractors are happy to fill the void.
Democratic and Republican policy-makers point to China’s human rights abuses as further reason to take a stand against China. For example, in 2019, Congress passed a law banning HikVision and Dahua, two surveillance tech companies with proven ties to the state violence against Uighurs, from doing work on US government contracts. There absolutely needs to be retaliatory actions against surveillance tech companies carrying out state violence. But it should be thoughtful legislation that understands the reality of 21st century surveillance. HikVision, for instance, makes products labeled as coming from non-Chinese companies like Honeywell and ABUS. Those are not barred. The 2019 law also deliberately ignores the fact that HikVision would not exist if not for US-approved venture capital firms like SoftBank and investment funds like Fidelity. Reducing surveillance to a strictly government affair allows private tech companies to prosper and neglects longer histories of tech-enabled racial capitalism inscribed by the US War on Terror. Meanwhile, HikVision cameras and temperature sensors—used, for instance, in Times Square—remain readily available to American consumers and private companies for purchase. Other products from companies banned from US government contracts are also in widespread use. Amazon warehouses employ temperature-monitoring cameras made by Dahua.
It’s telling that as Trump goes on about TikTok’s relationship with the Chinese government, no technical investigation into the app’s workings has found that it sends user information to China. A 2017 Chinese law does require companies with data stored in China to provide information to the government, but TikTok has stated that its data is stored inside the United States. Unlike Europe, which has the General Data Protection Regulation, the United States does not have explicit rules about data sovereignty—which means we must take TikTok and all other corporations at their word. The US government’s refusal to protect its citizens’ data reflects its own desire to monitor its population, epitomized in the 2018 Cloud Act, which allows the US government to request data about citizens, no matter where data is geographically stored.
If US politicians were sincerely concerned about Chinese state violence, they would be willing to question and implicate the corporate actors—including Silicon Valley tech companies and their investors—that profit from the surveillance of Uighurs and other groups. The Trump administration’s reluctance to do so points not only to its own corruption, but also to how it ultimately views the plight of oppressed peoples outside the United States as pawns in an election cycle.
To Trump’s supporters, China and “big government” activists are socialist threats that their president has finally stood up to. In his appeal for four more years of power, Trump aims to cement the connection between China and leftism and between Chinese corporations and the Chinese government (but not Chinese corporations and US ones). This type of damage is not just the fear of “the Other,” but a continued assault on democratic processes while the US government absolves itself of actually protecting its citizens. Foreign policy abroad has come to justify a dismantling of democracy at home.
Judges across the United States have since issued injunctions, blocking the executive orders banning WeChat and TikTok, in attempts to uphold legislative processes and because they deem such bans infringements on users’ First Amendment rights. This defense of constitutional rights, however, serves the grander Trump narrative, because the administration has made governance and our democracy its enemy, aided by the threat of China. “Yellow peril” is a lazy but enormously effective narrative in drumming up nationalist support. Just hours after Trump tested for Covid-19, his supporters immediately started blaming China, insisting that the United States must hold China accountable—fitting well with Trump’s insistence on calling it the “China virus.” Holding China “accountable” may appeal not just to his staunch supporters but also to those voters who are tired of our socially distanced, masked new normal. In this election season, we cannot discount the ways narratives have been shaped and twisted to appeal to a multitude of fears. Trump’s promise of “America First” depended on isolating us in the world, through walls and all kinds of bans. Yet we must continue to connect the dots, across borders and imaginaries, seeing through narratives for what they are. Our democracy may depend on it.