WASHINGTON: The United States on Friday ordered a ban on downloads of popular Chinese-owned video app TikTok and use of the messaging and payment platform WeChat, saying they threaten national security.
The move, to be implemented on Sunday night, comes amid rising US-China tensions and efforts by the Trump administration to engineer a sale of TikTok to American investors.
"The Chinese Communist Party has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the US," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.
The initiative would ban WeChat, an app with massive use among Chinese speakers, and TikTok from the online marketplaces operated by Apple and Google. But while WeChat will effectively be shut down in the US from Sunday night, existing TikTok users will be able to continue using the app until November 12 -- when it would also face a full ban on its US operations.
TikTok’s brand of brief, quirky phone videos has become hugely popular, especially among young people, with 100 million users in the US alone -- and its use has further soared among teens stuck at home through the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Sunday night, Ross told Fox news, TikTok users will not have access to improved apps, updated apps, upgraded apps, or maintenance. "So if that were to continue over a long period of time there might be a gradual degradation of services. But the basic TikTok will stay intact until November 12th," he said.
"If there’s not a deal by November 12th under the provisions of the old order, then TikTok... would be, for all practical purposes, shut down," Ross added. The Commerce Department said if concerns over TikTok were resolved before then, the order may be lifted.
Owned by Chinese giant Tencent, WeChat is widely used among the Chinese diaspora to keep in touch with people back home. The US ban on WeChat has potential for disrupting the widely used application, but does not affect its service in China where the app is much more widely used.
The clampdown follows through on a threat by President Donald Trump, who has claimed Chinese tech operations may be used for spying. It also ramps up the pressure on TikTok parent ByteDance to conclude a deal to sell all or part of TikTok to allay US security concerns.
A deal which appeared to be taking shape would allow Silicon Valley giant Oracle to become the tech partner for TikTok, but some US lawmakers have objected to allowing ByteDance to keep a stake.
The TikTok saga has seen several twists as the US gears up for the November 3 presidential election, with Microsoft seen initially as the suitor before its bid was rejected. Trump is searching for a breakthrough with voters as polls show him facing an uphill battle to win a second term.
He has increasingly put national security and his aggressive stance towards China at the center of his campaign strategy, regularly accusing Democratic opponent Joe Biden of weakness towards Beijing.
Trump tweeted late on Thursday that Biden had "cheered the rise of China as a ‘positive development’ for America and the world." Trump had previously demanded a significant portion of any TikTok sale go to the US government, but admitted this week that was not possible.
"Lawyers come back to me and they say there is no way of doing that because nobody has ever heard of that before," he said.The ban on WeChat, used by over 1 billion people worldwide, bars the transfer of funds or processing of payments to or from people in the United States through it. Users could also start to experience slower service from Sunday night.
The Commerce Department will not seek to compel people in the United States to remove the apps or stop using them. “We are aiming at a top corporate level. We’re not going to go out after the individual users,” one Commerce official said. Over time, officials said, the lack of updates will degrade the apps usability.
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