The Mercury News

Beijing denies pressuring companies to spy for China

- By Chang Che

China on Friday denied pressuring companies to collect informatio­n abroad on behalf of the government, rebuffing claims made by American lawmakers about the viral video app TikTok, which is at the center of an escalating dispute between Washington and Beijing over politics, technology and economics.

At a news conference, a Chinese foreign ministry spokespers­on, Mao Ning, said China “has never and will not” ask companies or individual­s to collect data stored in foreign countries in a way that violates those countries' laws.

The denial came a day after a heated, five-hour congressio­nal hearing in which U.S. lawmakers grilled TikTok's CEO, Shou Chew, over the app's ties to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, as well as its possible use as a surveillan­ce tool by the Chinese government.

China's reaction to the hearing highlighte­d how TikTok, which has roughly 150 million users in the United States, has become a flashpoint in the geopolitic­al tussle between the world's two largest economies. Hours before Chew's hearing Thursday, China's

Ministry of Commerce said it would oppose a forced sale of the app, a rebuke to the Biden administra­tion, which recently called for the app's Chinese owners to sell it or face a possible ban in the United States.

This month, the White House endorsed a bipartisan Senate bill that would give the Commerce Department power to ban any app that endangered Americans' security, putting potential restrictio­ns on TikTok on more solid legal footing.

U.S. lawmakers and regulators fear that Beijing could compel TikTok to hand over sensitive data about U.S. users or tweak its recommenda­tion algorithm to serve propaganda. They point to expansive Chinese laws that require citizens and private companies to cooperate with authoritie­s' public security investigat­ions and intelligen­ce work.

At Thursday's hearings, lawmakers repeatedly pressed Chew on ByteDance's admission that employees had obtained the data of U.S. users, including two American journalist­s.

Tensions between the superpower­s intensifie­d after the discovery of a Chinese surveillan­ce balloon floating over U.S. territory in February. One Republican lawmaker recently called

TikTok a “spy balloon in your phone.”

China's claim that the government would never ask companies to spy for it was “similar to their argument that they don't censor the internet,” said Lokman Tsui, a fellow at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and an expert on Chinese censorship, who called it “prepostero­us and laughable.” China's strict internet censorship laws require companies — including TikTok's domestic counterpar­t, Douyin — to surveil their users, he added.

In the early 2000s, Chinese authoritie­s asked U.S. internet giant Yahoo to hand over the emails of a Chinese journalist, who was subsequent­ly sentenced to 10 years in prison. Chinese rules also blocked some U.S. tech companies, including Google and Facebook, from operating in the Chinese market entirely, a decision that led to complaints about unfair market practices. At the briefing Friday, China turned that criticism on its head.

The U.S. government should “stop unreasonab­ly suppressin­g foreign companies” like TikTok, Mao of the foreign ministry said. Instead, she added, it should “respect the market economy and principle of fair competitio­n.”

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