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Issue #1929      August 24, 2020

Australia investigates Tiktok and WeChat amid US bullying towards Chinese tech companies

In Trump’s latest attack on China, the US government has issued a ban on Chinese-owned apps such as Tiktok and WeChat, sparking an Australian parliamentary committee to investigate the apps’ potential to interfere in Australian politics. In a seemingly unbiased move, US-owned companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter are also being investigated under this committee. This decision poses many more questions about Australia’s ever increasingly difficult relationship with both the US and China.

Exposed by American NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, Google and Facebook were found to be involved in spy operations, information censorship to benefit US interests, and later found to be interfering in foreign elections.

While Snowden is still unable to return to the US for releasing this information, Google and Facebook, and to an extent, Twitter, remain heavily relied upon by most Australians for work and leisure. It seems if a genuine investigation were to be taken, they would likely face the same penalties as Tiktok and WeChat, such as banning them.

The argument against the Chinese-owned apps’ prominence in Australia is linked to concerns over Chinese political influence in Australia. As a result, it may just seem prudent to conduct an investigation, in light of the actions of the US-owned apps, and in light of allegations against China and the Chinese government in the Australian media, however the reasons for the investigation are likely to be part of a more serious US agenda.

First of all, the allegation of Chinese influence in Australian politics is seemingly assumed in mainstream media, rather than explained in detail as to what that actually means. On ABC’s Four Corners, evidence for Chinese influence in Australia included story about a Chinese consulate who lobbied a local council to drop the Vision China Times (VCT), a Chinese-language outlet that is often critical of the Chinese government (which was unsuccessful anyway), and another story of censorship of anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rhetoric on a Mandarin-language radio in Australia, which turned out only to be being censored by an Australian media mogul who supported the CCP and did not want to lose listeners – but with no evidence of connection to the CCP. This is hardly compelling evidence for hard hitting Chinese influence.

On the other hand, evidence of US interference in Australian politics has a long and dark history, and continues today through organisations such as the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), and Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Evidence has been found linking the CIA to the coup on Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, way back in 1975, when he announced the aim to shut down US military base Pine Gap, in Australia’s centre. This was a major insult to the Australian working class, with Malcolm Fraser, leader of the Liberal opposition being undemocratically appointed by the governor general at this time. Before and since then, everyday Australians have been fighting against the continued removal of workers’ rights, in part due to this interference, as well as US military presence, funding and engagement in Australia.

So while it seems the move to investigate Tiktok and WeChat is unbiased and perhaps a responsible call to action, the historical and political ties Australia has with these nations suggests otherwise. The overwhelming evidence of spying and interference from the US suggests that the aim is not to protect citizens’ private information from the CCP or Chinese organisations, but to have access to information themselves, and the ability to censor content as they wish. For instance, in the so-called “international community” (aka, in the West), those who have a genuine interest in learning about countries outside of the imperialist core will undoubtedly almost always led to overtly critical and biased information when searching with Google or YouTube. Additionally, social commentators on the anti-imperialist left are constantly shut down for minor criticisms of the United States on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The US is unable to shut down dissent from Chinese-owned apps.

Tiktok users mainly comprise young people, and it is the first Chinese-owned app to become popular amongst non-Chinese Australians. While there have been arguments against the app’s ability to raise public awareness of social and political issues, there is growing content of this description. Tiktok also has the ability to reach a massive audience quickly, owing to its function and algorithms.

However, there is a more unsettling reason Trump aspires to ban TikTok in the US than the inability to track and censor users. As the US-China trade war has intensified, the US has demanded China no longer engage in the world market for technology. This is not simply to stop the Chinese government from spying or interfering, but to allow the US to maintain hegemony over tech industries, not only in communications, but aerospace, semiconductors and biotech. If China is to accept dependence from the US and other foreign suppliers for high-tech products and services, it is at the whim of US sanctions and influence, and at risk of much slower and limited development, and forced to produce only cheap low-tech products as it has done over previous decades. It is clear that the option for China to forever remain a sweatshop of cheap European and American products is unreasonable.

But the growing material reality is that China is not at the whim of US-lead demands anymore. China is striving forward with the implementation of the phase one bilateral trade deal with the US, and is still providing greater convenience for American companies, especially financial companies, to enter the Chinese market. In July, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng cited a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China which showed that 84 percent of US enterprises are unwilling to withdraw from China, and 38 percent of them will maintain or increase their investment in China. Chinese officials have proposed that the relations between the two countries should not be dominated by hawks, that any issue can be taken to the negotiating table, and China and the US can work together to draw up three lists respectively on cooperation, dialogue and issues that need proper management.

The rise of China is especially relevant for Australians, as the “business-as-usual do-what-the-Americans-say” strategy becomes increasingly at odds with the interests of Australians – of all classes. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is now in a position where the implications for following the Americans in line to ban TikTok and WeChat are worse for the Australian politicians. As China continues to make strides, it is likely that Australian politicians will continue to be obliged to make more decisions which go against the wishes of the US empire, and to prioritise the local economy, through positive relations with China.

The leadership in Australia will need to step up and to think more independently about the most optimal way forward for our country. Not as a lapdog for any other country, but as a strong, independent sovereign nation, who makes decisions about its own future, and its relationships with its neighbours. Left and progressive forces must continue to demand action by politicians along these lines.

Next article – Palmer vs. WA – A man against the people

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