Trump versus TikTok — an expert’s view
My 11-year-old daughter Amira has begun taking a big interest in the world of high finance and geopolitical strategy and has already developed some pretty strong views for one so young.
Her unshakeable verdict is this: US President Donald Trump is wrong, and he should change his mind on his hostility toward TikTok, the Chinese-owned video sharing app that has become her refuge during lockdown. “He just doesn’t like people having fun,” she said with all the outrage a youngster can muster.
I have got to say, I agree with her, but for rather different reasons. I think Trump’s opposition to TikTok is a calculated mix of electioneering in the run-up to the November election, and a continuation of the anti-globalization, specifically anti-Chinese, agenda that has characterized his presidency since Day 1.
Languishing double-digit percentage points behind Democrat challenger Joe Biden in the polls, Trump appears to have decided that TikTok is the issue that will win them over in Wisconsin and the other swing states. The fact it is owned by ByteDance of Beijing makes it the perfect target for the president.
While Amira sees TikTok as a way of sharing short music videos with her similarly locked-down friends, Trump sees it as a Trojan horse for Chinese technological infiltration of the West. Put up a short dance routine, and next thing you know, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be reading your emails while on his way to dominating cyberspace.
She thinks it is ridiculous, and you can see her point. TikTok is not like Chinese tech giant Huawei, which you could argue is an instrument of government policy on a global scale, as Trump does. Numerous other countries have also big reservations about doing business with Huawei on security grounds. But few apart from Trump have expressed any such fears about TikTok.
The American president’s animosity to the app has produced some of the more bizarre policy stances of even his mercurial administration.
He recently threatened to ban TikTok altogether in the US, which seemed like spiteful value-destruction. Globally, the business is valued at around $50 billion, with the American side a significant chunk of its business.
This was not lost on Microsoft, which said it was interested in buying the US business and running it by American governance and security standards. That seemed a neat way out of the US-China impasse.
No, replied Trump, Microsoft could not do that, with an explanation that ranked as one of strangest of his presidency. “We are not an M&A country,” he said, referring to the acronym for mergers and acquisitions that is the shorthand for corporate takeover activity in the financial world.
This was coming from the author of “The Art of the Deal” guide to corporate takeovers and the president of the country which invented aggressive takeover culture in the style of “Wall Street” film character Gordon Gekko.
Trump changed his mind slightly later, but still appeared to put stringent conditions on any Microsoft acquisition of TikTok. If he were to allow it to happen, he would expect Microsoft to pay a “very large percentage” of the acquisition price to the US Treasury “because we’re making it possible.”
There must have been much head-scratching at Microsoft about this. They were being asked to pay big dollars to the US government to facilitate an acquisition that the same government had effectively ordered. That could be a new chapter in a revised version of “The Art of the Deal.”
Given the president’s inconsistencies, it is hard to know how it goes from here. He has given Microsoft until September to do a deal, and to come up with a nice big number that will satisfy the Treasury.
It is entirely possible that Microsoft will reject the opportunity to take part, and Trump will ban TikTok in retaliation.
Which would just confirm Amira’s view. He really is no fun.