Nov 20, 2019

TikTok looks to downplay its China ties

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As lawmakers and regulators zero in on issues around Chinese tech companies and U.S. tech companies' ties to China, the longstanding low U.S. profile of Chinese tech brands is beginning to change.

The big picture: Our devices are made in China but our software and services, for the most part, aren't. TikTok is a big exception — and now the video-sharing network is under fire amid concerns over its Chinese ownership and the potential for censorship or risks to user data.

For its part, the company has broken its silence and is on a media campaign to distance itself from the Chinese government, an effort that could include a rebranding to disassociate the service from its Chinese ownership, per the Wall Street Journal.

  • Meanwhile, CEO Alex Zhu told the New York Times that he would go as far as to personally reject an appeal for user data even if it came from Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He also reiterated that TikTok doesn't store U.S. user data in China and doesn't share such data with its Chinese parent company.

As TikTok looks to play down its Chinese roots, it is following a path similar to the few Chinese companies who have gone after the U.S. consumer market.

  • TCL is a Chinese hardware giant that sells a ton of consumer devices in the U.S., but mostly under other, more American-sounding brands. With phones, for example, it sells under the Alcatel and BlackBerry brands. In TVs TCL now uses its own name in the U.S., but sold for a long time under the RCA moniker.

Yes, but: Chinese companies aren't the only tech firms that don't trumpet their ownership of high-profile brands. A surprising number of people fail to connect Instagram and WhatsApp with Facebook, which owns them. Ditto for Google and YouTube.

History lesson: The first Chinese tech company to make a serious run at the U.S. consumer market was Lenovo, which bought IBM's PC business back in 2005.

  • It initially had the rights to use the IBM brand on computers for five years but switched over to ThinkPad after three years. It now sells tablets and PCs under the Lenovo brand.
  • On the phone side, it uses the Motorola name exclusively in the U.S., even though in other countries it sells under both brands.

Meanwhile: U.S. brands, outside of Apple, have largely struggled in China, where the internet is dominated by homegrown brands like Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba. The Chinese hardware scene is also dominated by domestic players such as Oppo, Xiaomi and Huawei.

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China's invisible brands

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

American consumers are quite familiar with many of the big-name foreign products — Toyota, Samsung, to name a couple — but brands from China are virtually invisible.

The big picture: Chinese companies doing business in the U.S. are doing their best to hide where they come from. If they're not actively masking their home country, they're certainly not leading with it.

Go deeperArrowNov 21, 2019

Hawley bill targets Apple and TikTok ties to China

Josh Hawley. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a prominent big tech critic, will introduce legislation Monday meant to protect Americans' online data from flowing to China and other countries that raise national security concerns.

How it works: Hawley's bill takes aim Apple and TikTok by prohibiting American companies from storing user data or encryption keys in China, and preventing Chinese companies from collecting more information on American users than necessary to provide service here.

Go deeperArrowNov 18, 2019

TikTok apologizes after deleting post on China's Uighur Muslims

A TikTok logo on a mobile device. Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

TikTok apologized on Wednesday for temporarily deleting a viral TikTok post that compared China's mass detention of Uighur Muslims to the Holocaust, citing a "human moderation error."

Why it matters: TikTok is trying to distance itself from its Chinese ownership amid recent reports that moderators have been told to censor videos that reference topics deemed off-limits by the Chinese Communist Party, and U.S. lawmakers' interest in probing the app for censorship.

Go deeperArrowNov 28, 2019