In a bold move to confront China’s influence, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed bills banning TikTok from schools and government servers. As a prominent China hawk and a Republican presidential hopeful for 2024, DeSantis injected new energy into the movement to ban TikTok, while taking another step in GOP-led states’ efforts to counter China’s presence.
Contrary to the smooth progress seen in gubernatorial administrations, however, a national ban on TikTok has encountered obstacles in Congress. While a bipartisan coterie displayed strong solidarity in criticizing TikTok’s CEO during a congressional hearing in March, there has been limited advancement toward a comprehensive nationwide legislative ban.
The Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries (DATA) Act, introduced by Michael McCaul (R-TX), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, aimed to target TikTok with bipartisan support. Nevertheless, though the bill ultimately advanced from the committee, all Democrats on the panel voted against it. Over two months have elapsed since then, and the bill remains in the introductory stage, showing no immediate signs of progressing to a vote on the House floor.
U.S. President Joe Biden has emerged as the highest-ranking Democratic figure espousing a TikTok ban. Not only has he attempted to force the sale of the Chinese-owned application to American owners, but he has also endorsed the RESTRICT (Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology) Act in the Senate. While the bill does not explicitly target TikTok, its implications undoubtedly encompass technology companies like TikTok. However, even with Biden’s support, the bill has made no tangible progress since its introduction, similar to the fate of the DATA Act.
The true intentions behind Biden’s support for the bill remain uncertain, whether it serves as a performative action against China or reflects genuine concerns about the application. Nonetheless, the provision in the bill that would grant the president increased authority has already sparked suspicions and objections from some Republican China hawks.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) stands out as the most vocal Republican opposing a TikTok ban to date. In contrast to some of his colleagues, who reject TikTok-related proposals in order to prevent the potential expansion of federal government power, Paul unapologetically aligns himself with Democratic progressives in his opposition. While many Democrats try to fend off a TikTok ban based on the entertaining nature of the application and its critical importance to small businesses, the Republican senator was more forthright in his rationale for rebelling against the mainstream anti-TikTok sentiment within the Republican Party: banning TikTok would cost the GOP votes from young people.
While Paul’s stance may be seen as aggressive by his GOP colleagues, he is not alone in his concerns. Several Republican lawmakers, such as Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), support the RESTRICT Act but still share similar apprehensions.
Their concerns are grounded in factual evidence. The Republican Party faces a dual challenge to its base due to ongoing demographic shifts. First, the traditionally Republican voting bloc, consisting of the “Silent Generation” and Baby Boomers, is gradually shrinking as a result of aging. Meanwhile, younger generations, namely Gen Z and Millennials, disproportionately gravitate toward the Democratic Party. Republican politicians representing constituencies undergoing these demographic changes and potential political affiliation shifts will need to attach greater weight to opinions from younger voters. Paul’s home state of Kentucky serves as a prominent example of such a demographic shift, and it is worth noting that Paul himself has initiated charm offensives targeted at young voters for several years
As the 2024 presidential election approaches, it becomes increasingly important for politicians whose constituencies benefit from TikTok to carefully weigh the political ramifications of supporting an outright ban on the platform. So far, legislative restrictions on TikTok access primarily apply to state-owned devices and networks. Even in traditionally conservative states like Florida and Louisiana, an all-out ban is unlikely to be implemented due to the widespread popularity of the application among the American public.
Considering the significance of young voters to Biden and the Democratic Party, the Biden administration is being caught between a rock and a hard place. By offering high-profile vocal support for the RESTRICT Act, Biden himself may be able to play along with China hawks’ rhetoric of banning TikTok in the name of national security. However, his Cabinet members are more outspoken about the political dilemma revolving around the TikTok ban. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, for instance, openly acknowledged the grim prospects of Biden losing support from voters under the age of 35 if the application were banned. Therefore, the political cost associated with a TikTok ban heavily influences the actions taken by the Biden administration.
It is likely that any attempts, whether by Biden or through “bipartisan efforts,” to ban TikTok will be more vocal than actionable. Bills targeting TikTok may end up being performative legislation without significant effectiveness.
On the other hand, China seems to be poised to counter any potential TikTok ban by voicing its displeasure about the escalating scrutiny of the application. Notwithstanding its warnings, China does not have an obvious target for a tit-for-tat response as major U.S. technology companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other American social media platforms have long been blocked in the country. Meanwhile, despite orchestrated campaigns against Tesla and Apple in China’s consumer market, Beijing is also wary of the potential consequences of pushing high-tech manufacturers to relocate their production to countries like Vietnam or India.
Hence, Beijing’s potential retaliation could involve tightening regulations or even expelling American businesses that are deemed less crucial to its strategic objectives. In light of the Chinese government’s recent increase in scrutiny of foreign companies in the name of national security and anti-corruption, leveraging business-related measures in response to any setback in TikTok would be advantageous.
Additionally, Beijing will continue to highlight the U.S. crackdown on TikTok to reinforce its narrative that Washington is the primary instigator undermining globalization and engaging in a technology war. As China seeks to position itself as an unbiased third party in the Israel-Palestine conflict, contrasting its stance with that of the United States, it is likely to seize the opportunity presented by the TikTok ban to promote its Global Initiative on Data Security as an alternative framework to U.S. digital surveillance. This may further enhance China’s digital influence in the Global South.