How the Theatrics of Banning TikTok Enables Repression at Home

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?