There is a dangerous game being played out at the moment, where the UK Government teeters on the edge of agreeing to let TikTok headquarter in London.
Superficially, you can understand why TikTok, the Chinese social media app, wants to relocate to Britain. The move would place the firm in far closer proximity — culturally and geographically — to its core market, Western teenagers. On top of that, our taxation, legal, and business environment have also made the UK ever more attractive to international technology firms.
Yet this is a charade. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is no ordinary digital firm. Nor are its interests motivated by profit alone.
ByteDance claims it is a company incorporated in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. Of course, the reason for this unusual boast is to show it is not a Chinese company. However, this was laid bare last month when Wang Wenbing, a spokesperson for the Chinese Government, confirmed that ByteDance is in fact ultimately a Chinese company.
This is important because it means ByteDance and its subsidiaries, including TikTok, are subject to the Chinese National Intelligence Law - a law requiring Chinese organisations to hand over data to the Chinese Government upon request, regardless of where such data was obtained.
This law has deeply troubling implications for the security of data that all too many in the West gladly hand over to TikTok.
Software experts are looking hard at the technology. Recent efforts by one group to reverse engineer the app have concluded that it is effectively “spyware for the Chinese Government”. These fears have prompted our allies to take swift action. Both India and the United States have instituted forms of bans targeted at the company.
With a flashy campus in London or the South East, ByteDance would be free to masquerade as a British equivalent to Facebook or Google, gaining credibility in London. It would be trading off the UK’s reputation for fair play and good governance. Worse, ByteDance would have the tacit approval of the British state.
Yet, by all accounts, ByteDance are not satisfied with mere tacit approval from the UK. A row is currently rumbling within Government over whether to give in to a supposed demand from ByteDance for an official government statement praising the firm and welcoming it with open arms.
Letting it in alone would be a terrible mistake, but issuing such a statement would be an act of sheer madness. For we know that beyond the troubling security fears, ByteDance’s activities are hard to distinguish from complicity in China’s terrible Uyghur genocide.
The Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, censors content in the Uyghur language, and promotes propaganda videos of Uyghur people singing Communist Party songs when anything related to the ethnic group is searched. Worse, ByteDance has deployed a “public security and internet social governance model” in Xinjiang under a strategic cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Public Security’s Press and Publicity Bureau.
The company is actively involved in providing services to the very people subjecting Uyghurs to what Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, recently called “egregious human rights abuses”.
Given the scale of these links, it stretches the bounds of credibility to suggest that ByteDance’s executives do not know about the extent of Xinjiang’s depravities, or their company’s alleged involvement in them.
We first learned of ByteDance’s role in Xinjiang in December last year and in every month since, we discover new links between it and the Chinese state.
Yet I understand there are some in Government who still cleave to the discredited project Kow Tow and whose desperation for Chinese investment is so great they want to turn a blind eye to the abuses of the Chinese state.
The UK already has ample evidence to justify having nothing to do with this Chinese firm, particularly when the rest of the free world is becoming more and more concerned about the genuine risks posed by an increasingly aggressive, totalitarian Chinese government.
If the UK Government decides to go ahead and agree to headquarter TikTok in London, it would be as big a blunder as appeasement was in the 1930s.
Instead of that, this newly sovereign Britain should stand with our allies, for to do otherwise would leave the Chinese state, in London, hiding in plain sight.
This article was first published in The Telegraph