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    Pacific Dialogue
    Has Biden made peace with TikTok?
    By Liang Xiao  ·  2024-02-26  ·   Source: NO.9 FEBRUARY 29, 2024

    On February 11, Joe Biden, President of the United States, became one of the more than 1 billion users of TikTok, the international short video platform owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. His account was created just one year after the White House mandated all federal agencies remove the app from their devices and systems, citing "data security" concerns.

    The Biden team claims the account is simply part of their campaign strategy, and that the Biden-Harris campaign team will be regularly posting content on TikTok just as they do on other social platforms, including X, Threads, Instagram and Facebook. However, despite facing widespread criticism from political opponents within the U.S., viewing the move from the perspective of Sino-U.S. relations, the U.S. president's TikTok account conveys a clear positive signal.

    The multi-year dispute between China and the U.S. over TikTok can be seen as a typical case of uncontrolled competition between the two countries. TikTok entered the U.S. market in 2018 and achieved significant user growth in just over two years, challenging the existing Internet business landscape as a dark horse. In a nation that venerates the entrepreneurial ethos, the success of TikTok should be celebrated, but solely due to its Chinese lineage, the U.S. Government deemed it a "national security risk," asserting that the platform collects user data to gain geopolitical advantage over the United States as part of the broader U.S.-China conflict. These accusations lack factual basis, and the federal and state governments' proposed TikTok bans have also been repeatedly rejected by the courts.

    It is worth noting that the continuous debate over the use of TikTok seems not to have decreased the app's popularity among America's younger generation. When TikTok's Singaporean CEO, Shou Zi Chew, was challenged on Capitol Hill about the safety and security of the app in March 2023, he stated that the number of TikTok users in the U.S. was 150 million. That figure has increased to 170 million in the one year since his questioning. Moreover, TikTok can now no longer be defined as a mere entertainment platform. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center from September 25 to October 1, 2023, among 8,842 American respondents, 32 percent of adults under 30 said they use TikTok to access news information, a figure that has been increasing over the past four years.

    The role of young voters was significant in Biden's narrow defeat of then President Donald Trump in 2020. Over the four years since then, approximately 16 million U.S. citizens have reached the voting age of 18. Naturally, the votes of these young people have become a focal point of contention for the two parties. U.S. media recently reported Biden's campaign team is seeking to collaborate with popstar Taylor Swift to garner more support from the younger voters. However, compared to attending a concert on Swift's U.S. tour in the lead-up to the election, which the Biden team is reportedly considering, establishing a presence on TikTok is likely a more achievable and controllable means for the president to engage with young people, especially against the backdrop of his declining popularity among them.

    Of course, a social media account cannot directly impact Sino-U.S. relations, but it can be seen as a symbolic gesture. The consensus reached by the leaders of China and the U.S. in November last year in San Francisco is that the Earth is big enough to accommodate the development and prosperity of both China and the U.S., and that the success of each country presents opportunities rather than threats to the other.

    More importantly, TikTok does provide a hope of breaking down the information barriers between Chinese and American youth.

    As cultural exchange programs between Chinese and American youth gradually resume, an increasing number of Chinese participants are noticing a reality: When Chinese and American youth discuss topics related to the U.S., they often resonate with each other, whether it's the latest American TV shows or sports stars. However, American young people's perceptions of China are often unfamiliar to contemporary Chinese people. The Chinese novels or films they talk about are often works from 40 years ago.

    But on TikTok, interaction between young people is less influenced by political barriers and other mainstream social media in the United States.

    By sharing short videos that rely less on language description, TikTok opens up a new possibility: Young Americans can now more intuitively observe what the Chinese are doing, how they live, and what dreams they cherish. In the end, perhaps young Americans and young Chinese will both realize that they inhabit the same world and share the same dreams. 

    Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

    Comments to liangxiao@cicgamericas.com

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