Katherine Mansted, senior public policy advisor at Australian National University’s National Security College, said TikTok’s decision to withdraw from Hong Kong was both strategic and commercial.
“TikTok has come under a lot of global fire about of its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party and it has maintained that it doesn’t share data with authorities … that position would be almost impossible to maintain if it kept its product in Hong Kong,” Mansted said.
“On the practical reasons, the company that owns TikTok, ByteDance, has a rival product which is similar which it runs in China. In order to comply with the new national security rules in Hong Kong, it makes more sense for them to roll out that product.”
TikTok is facing increased scrutiny in countries like the US and Australia because of the links between Chinese-owned technology companies and the Chinese government. Local experts have previously raised concerns about the platform’s use of data and censorship. TikTok hit back against a call for it to be banned in Australia on Monday and is preparing to address a parliamentary committee where it will answer concerns over how it deals with user data.
Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Twitter and Telegram all said that they would not process any requests made of it by Hong Kong police as the sweeping new national security legislation designed to eliminate political dissent in the Chinese territory was codified on Tuesday.
Mansted said mainland China was notorious for excluding foreign companies that don’t comply with its laws. “Just as what the public can say in the street is changing, their digital experience is changing too,” she said.
In Hong Kong on Tuesday, dissenting books were stripped from shelves and schools were told to prepare to educate students about the new laws. The Financial Times reported Charles Ho, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, warned foreign journalists they could be kicked out “if they promote Hong Kong independence”.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam rejected claims the laws would trigger the end of the “one country, two systems” handover treaty signed between China and the UK in 1997. “This is not doom and gloom for Hong Kong. In the passage of time confidence will grow,” she said. “The law actually removes fear and lets Hong Kong people return to a normal, peaceful life.”
The territory has been rocked by often violent protests in the past 15 months over the increasing influence of Beiijng. Protesters have been warned that they may be charged for holding up blank pieces of paper after all pro-independence slogans and chants were banned.
Federal cabinet will debate proposals to give visas to Hong Kong residents wanting to leave the former British colony on Wednesday, ahead of an expected announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison by the end of this week.
The 20,000 temporary migrants from Hong Kong already in Australia are likely to be given priority and any new arrivals will be recruited through the existing skills streams rather than through the humanitarian intake or a separate Hong Kong safe haven specific visa.
The government has substantial room to offer places given Australia’s immigration intake so far this year is expected to be a fraction of the 160,000 cap given the travel restrictions triggered by the coronavirus.
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Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.
Zoe Samios is a media and telecommunications reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.