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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

TikTok has become a Rorschach test for how U.S. politicians view China, with little consensus on the specifics of its threat to homeland security.

The big picture: Much of what D.C. fears about TikTok is fear itself, and that's reflected in President Trump's executive order to ban the app by Sept. 20 if it's not sold by parent company ByteDance — alongside another focused on Chinese messaging app WeChat and its parent company Tencent.

  • Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro told Axios Monday that he's worried about the Chinese government accessing passwords and location data, given laws that require data disclosure to the Chinese government upon request.
  • Some remain wary of possible "backdoors" into devices, after security flaws were discovered (and remedied) earlier this year.
  • Others believe the threat is more cultural, arguing that the Chinese government could use TikTok's algorithm to promote content that destabilizes U.S. politics or society.
  • The White House executive order reflects all of these concerns.

Between the lines: The executive orders were sloppily worded.

  • The TikTok executive order claimed there can be no "transactions" with the company after the 45-day deadline, even though it's nearly impossible to imagine that Microsoft or any other buyer could close a deal by then. A senior White House official later told me that there just must be a satisfactory deal in place, not completed.
  • TikTok this morning said the executive order "risks undermining global businesses' trust in the United States' commitment to the rule of law."
  • The WeChat executive order suggests that U.S. entities can't enter transactions with not only WeChat, but also with parent company Tencent. The same WH official was less clear when I asked for clarification on this one.
  • It matters because, if read literally, Tencent would need to divest its numerous investments in U.S. tech companies within the next 45 days, or else hold them forever. Companies like Reddit and Fortnite maker Epic Games. And, if it holds them, what happens if a kid buys something from Fortnite? Is that a violation?

The impact: Not too much, unless it angers the Chinese government to the point of nixing any TikTok sale.

  • Microsoft is now racing to getting an agreement done with ByteDance — having chosen to first focus on CFIUS and other U.S. politics. It takes Trump's deadline seriously.
  • However, some big issues remain outstanding, including pricing and what TikTok geographies it plans to buy, per a source close to the process.

Yes, but: Other U.S. tech companies operating in China must be nervous this morning about retribution. Plus, many of them use WeChat to market to Chinese consumers.

The bottom line: The U.S.-China trade war is escalating, with social apps substituted for soybeans.

Go deeper

Trump bans Americans from investing in 31 companies with links to Chinese military

Photo: Kevin Frayer via Getty

President Trump signed an executive order Thursday prohibiting American companies and individuals from owning shares in any of the 31 Chinese companies previously listed as enabling the People’s Liberation Army, effective Jan. 11.

Why it matters: Many of these companies trade on U.S. exchanges and are sometimes purchased by American investors as part of mutual funds. It’s unclear what effect Trump’s latest sanctions could have on the markets.

Nov 12, 2020 - World

The China tech selloff pauses

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Tech stocks rebounded slightly in China after Wednesday’s selloff that had been prompted by new antitrust rules proposed by Chinese regulators.

Why it matters: The regulations could limit the power of China’s biggest tech companies. By the FT’s math, the country’s tech sector lost $290 billion in value in the space of two days.

Biden signs racial equity executive orders

Joe Biden prays at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on September 3, 2020, in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. PHOTO: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed executive orders on housing and ending the Justice Department's use of private prisons as part of what the White House is calling his “racial equity agenda.”

The big picture: Biden needs the support of Congress to push through police reform or new voting rights legislation. The executive orders serve as his down payment to immediately address systemic racism while he focuses on the pandemic.