News & Analysis

Of Chinese Apps and the Right to Global Free Speech

Image courtesy: The Evening Standard / PA Getty

For a very long time, Chinese apps have been in the eye of a data security storm, not just in India but across the world. It took a border skirmish in Ladakh for New Delhi to ban 59 of them. The rhetoric still revolves around privacy concerns while China’s desire to achieve hegemony remains in the shadow side – never seen, but forever lurking around. 

And what compounds matters is that Beijing itself guards its Chinese Wall zealously, never once allowing anyone a peek – even when the whole world wanted to know how Covid-19 originated in Wuhan and the alleged role of the PLA in curtailing it. For long now, China has been having its cake and eating it too! 

Take the case of Tik Tok. During the protests in Hong Kong, the short format video app totally censored content associated with the protestors, not only in the mainland, but outside of it too. More recently, Tik Tok was in the line of fire for censoring hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd. So, on the one hand you’ve an app that gets users to record videos and share while on the other you curb its effectiveness through censorship. And, you want all the data! 

How Did it All Start? 

For the United States and China, the South Asian region presented a big opportunity. Facebook made an aborted attempt with Facebook Basis, but net neutrality neutered it and Zuckerberg had to cough up $5.7 billion to Jio Platforms to buy that ticket. Now, Google too hopes to ride hitch a hike on the same platform besides setting aside $10 billion to invest in large and niche digital service providers. 

India has always had a protectionist vein despite opening up its economy in 1991. Yet, massive investments came in multiple sectors, the latest being eCommerce, this despite the fact that an average Indian spends only a fraction of what her US counterpart does online. This is where size truly matters as 1.3 billion is a market that nobody can ignore. 

Then there is data that gets bandied about to pitch India’s growing middle class, which today isn’t about you and me but those who work at our homes – the driver, the cook maybe. Because these are the new entrants to the digital economy as more than half of India is now online. No wonder companies are creating needs and brand habits for them. 

The Tectonic Shift

The tectonic shift to India’s digital foundations came via Mukesh Ambani and his Reliance Jio in December of 2015. It launched a 4G service. Unlike the circuit-based telephony systems of both 2G and 3G that required specific modems on both sides, 4G was just data where all of it goes over the internet. So, the data used for voice became almost free as against when one watched a movie online. 

Now, this was a brilliant strategy as by charging for 4G data and making voice calls free, Jio could get more outliers into the digital world. Some may recall the winter of 2002 when the same guy had launched mobile connectivity at Rs.500 with a free handset. “Kar Lo Duniya Mutthi Mein”, Reliance had said and that’s what they did by getting a cellphone to every hand. 

This time round, they gave voice free and with a free 1GB per day package of data, they got this crowd into viewing YouTube. Soon enough the company was sitting on a cool 370 million plus subscriber base and a competition that hasn’t yet figured out what hit them. This is what deep pockets can do to business and its ecosystem. 

And the Chinese Made Hay

Ironically, this is exactly what the Chinese were waiting for. The cheap handsets that flowed in since 2002 graduated to smartphones and affordable flagships. Along with it came the silent apps that could reach India’s hinterland. Small wonder that TikTok had 200 million subscribers, most of them from smaller towns and cities. 

The 200 million users of Tik Tok may amount to a small sum of money for Byte Dance currently in comparison to other markets, but the potential of monetising with such a big community is immense. Question is how did the chinese apps get so popular in India? And with these apps, China exported surveillance and censorship! 

But that’s not all they exported. Alongside came a totalitarian mindset relative to the outside world. With apps like TikTok, China uses its commercial might to get others to fall in line. Are you aware that Air India’s website renamed Taiwan to Chinese Taipei in 2018 while last year Houston Rockets tweet supporting Hong Kong’s pro democracy movement ruffled Chinese feathers to a point where the NBA had to apologise to Chinese fans. 

And they get away with it because China has an iron curtain around itself and is now building it elsewhere too. For example, Hollywood has heavy investments from the Chinese. You will find the name Zhengfu Pictures amongst the list of producers in the recent Apple TV Plus premiere ‘Greyhound’ starring Tom Hanks. Thankfully there was no reference to China in the film or they could have asked for a censor like they did with the ‘Top Gun’ sequel where they removed Japanese and Taiwanese flags from Tom Cruise’s jersey. 

Where Does it Leave Us Now?

ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok is making friendly overtures by suggesting that they are registered in Cayman Islands and so not technically Chinese. They also hired former Walt Disney honcho Kevin Mayer as the boss and also claimed that their servers weren’t all stationed in Chinese territory. In other words, they sought to distance themselves from Beijing. 

For all the rhetoric, we cannot be sure that the Chinese don’t control the data. The digital wall they built around themselves ensured that Twitter, Facebook and Google were blocked. It got local companies into the act as they copied the products shamelessly. Effectively, China gets to decide what the Chinese can see. But, why extend this logic to the rest of the world?

Naysayers in India criticized the ban saying it only makes us replicate Chinese intolerance. But, the Chinese companies gained by protecting their enterprises and so should we. The only thing we should bear in mind is creating the best products and services for our users and not make them meme-worthy as Chinese products have become. 

Meanwhile, it is good to remember that once a consumer is invested in a product, she’s already lived with its limitations and will loathe to shift, even if it means protecting a larger social need of keeping our country and culture independent. Which is why we need to block the mindsets that seek to block facts and information. 

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