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Trump bans dealings with Chinese owners of TikTok, WeChat

President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he finishes speaking during an event at the Whirlpool Corporation facility in Clyde, Ohio, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump ordered a sweeping but vague ban on dealings with the Chinese owners of consumer apps TikTok and WeChat, a move Chinese officials said was “political manipulation.”

The twin executive orders issued Thursday — one for each app — take effect in 45 days and could bar the popular apps from the Apple and Google app stores, effectively removing them from distribution in the U.S.

China’s foreign ministry accused Washington of misusing national security as an excuse to “unreasonably suppress” foreign companies and expressed opposition to the latest move but gave no indication whether it might retaliate.

“The United States is using taking national security as an excuse, frequently abuses national power and unreasonably suppress companies of other countries,” said a ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, at a briefing Friday. “This is an outright hegemonic act. China is firmly opposed to it.”

Wang, who didn’t mention TikTok or any other company by name, called on the Trump administration to “correct its wrongdoing” but gave no indication how Beijing might respond.

Earlier in the week, Trump threatened a deadline of Sept. 15 to “close down” TikTok in the U.S. unless Microsoft or another company acquires it, a threat the new executive order appears to formalize.

TikTok did not reply to queries. Tencent and Microsoft declined to comment on the executive orders.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an expansion of the U.S. crackdown on Chinese technology to include barring Chinese apps from U.S. app stores, citing alleged security threats and calling out TikTok and WeChat by name.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Friday accused Washington of “political manipulation” and said the moves will hurt American companies and consumers.

As president, Trump has often opted for provoking confrontations, often of a personal nature, with specific companies, both American and foreign. Trump’s orders cited legal authority from the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act.

The executive orders say the actions are needed because the China-owned apps “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” They call on the Commerce Secretary to define the banned dealings by the Sept. 15 deadline.

TikTok, known for its short, catchy videos, is widely popular among young people in the U.S. and elsewhere. It is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, which operates a separate version for the Chinese market. TikTok insists it does not store U.S. user information in China, instead caching it in the U.S. and Singapore, and says it would not share it with the Chinese government.

TikTok says it has 100 million U.S. users and hundreds of millions globally. According to research firm App Annie, TikTok saw 50 million weekly active users in the U.S. during the week of July 19, the latest available figure. That’s up 75% from the first week of the year.

WeChat and its sister app Weixin in China are hugely popular apps that incorporate messaging, financial transfers and an array of other services, and claim more than one billion users. Around the world, many people of Chinese descent use WeChat to stay in touch with friends and family and to conduct business in mainland China.

Within China, WeChat is censored and expected to adhere to content restrictions set by authorities. The Toronto-based Citizen Lab internet watchdog group has said WeChat monitors files and images shared abroad to aid its censorship in China.

The order against Tencent could have ramifications for users beyond WeChat, which is crucial for personal communications and organizations that do business with China. Tencent also owns parts or all of major game companies like Epic Games, publisher of Fortnite, a major video game hit, and Riot Games, which is behind League of Legends.

Over the past several years, the Trump administration has waged a trade war with China, blocked mergers involving Chinese companies and stifled the business of Chinese firms like Huawei, a maker of phones and telecom equipment. China-backed hackers, meanwhile, have been blamed for data breaches of U.S. federal databases and the credit agency Equifax, and the Chinese government strictly limits what U.S. tech companies can do in China.

Such actions seem to be gaining pace.

“This is an unprecedented use of presidential authority,” Eurasia Group analyst Paul Triolo said in an email. At a minimum, he said, the orders appear to “constitute a ban on the ability of U.S. app stores run by Apple and Google to include either mobile app after 45 days.”

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers share concerns about TikTok running from its vulnerability to censorship and misinformation campaigns to the safety of user data and children’s privacy. But the administration has provided no specific evidence that TikTok has made U.S. users’ data available to the Chinese government. Instead, officials point to the hypothetical threat that lies in the Chinese government’s ability to demand cooperation from Chinese companies.

“The U.S. thinking is that anything that is Chinese is suspect,” said Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. “They’re being targeted not because of what they’ve done, but who they are.”

Leading mobile security experts say TikTok is no more intrusive in its harvesting of user data and monitoring of user activity than U.S. apps owned by Facebook and Google.

“I am the first to yell from the rooftops when there is a glaring privacy issue somewhere. But we just have not found anything we could call a smoking gun in TikTok,” mobile security expert Will Strafach told The Associated Press last month after examining the app. Strafach is CEO of Guardian, which provides a firewall for Apple devices.

The order doesn’t seem to ban Americans from using TikTok, said Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame. She added that such an order would be nearly impossible to enforce in the first place.

“If goal is to get teenagers to stop using TikTok, I’m not sure an executive order will stop them,” she said. “Every teenager knows how to use a VPN (a virtual private network). They will just pretend they are in Canada.”

And it would be difficult to prohibit people from using the apps if they already have them, even if an app-store ban went into effect, said Vanderbilt University law professor Timothy Meyer.

“This is a pretty broad and pretty quick expansion of the technology Cold War between the U.S. and China,” said Steven Weber, faculty director for the Berkeley Center for Long Term Cybersecurity. Weber added that “there is a plausible national security rationale” for the orders.