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India bans TikTok, 58 other apps amid rising anti-China sentiment, border clashes

Tik Tok in Chat. Image via Flickr by Christoph Scholz. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Tik Tok in Chat. Image via Flickr by Christoph Scholz. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The border clashes and the stand-off between Indian and Chinese security forces in the Galwan valley on June 15, reached naught after India, Asia's third-largest economy, decided to impose an interim ban on the wildly popular Chinese video-creation platform TikTok and 58 other apps due to “security issues” on Monday, June 29, 2020. There are also speculations of India advising domestic telecom companies to refrain from using Chinese telecom hardware, particularly Huawei and ZTE.

In the weeks following the border clashes after India reported the death of 20 soldiers, instances of anti-China protests were rampant across the country with many trade groups burning Chinese products, and social media users warning Indian citizens of buying China-made products. This has prompted Chinese brands like Xiaomi to cover their signages with “Make In India” banners to prevent instances of vandalism. Make in India is an Indian government-promoted campaign encouraging companies to manufacture their products in India and benefit the Indian economy.

In the wake of these bans, the use of Indian apps with similar functionalities to those of banned Chinese apps like Tik Tok, Helo, and WeChat increased. One such app — Chingari — saw an increase of 100,000 users in just 30 minutes. 

The June 15 clashes were the first deadly violence between Chinese and Indian forces in 45 years after decades of carefully-cultivated economic ties. For example, Chinese smartphone makers established factories in Southern India to cater to a growing demand for low-cost Chinese smartphones.

Prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India

India is a key market for ByteDance's TikTok with roughly over 30 percent of its global users coming from India, estimated at 120 million users. Losing the Indian market could throw a spanner into the company's valuation as the firm readies for an IPO listing.

The Indian government termed the Chinese-owned applications as “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, the security of the state and public order.”

The government further said it had “received many complaints from various sources including several reports about the misuse of some mobile apps available on Android and iOS platforms for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.”

Besides TikTok, India also banned music and image sharing app ShareIt, UC Browser, short video sharing app Likee, messaging and social media app WeChat, and streaming service Bigo Live.   Chinese state media Global Times described the ban as Modi government's “political crackdown on Chinese companies”.

Yet, tech researchers pointed out that the ban does not include any of the Chinese apps that deal with financial transactions using the Indian government-regulated payments system Unified Payments Interface (UPI), and have access to private data of users.

#AntiChina protests

In recent weeks, India's government procurement website barred the selling of Chinese-manufactured goods asking global e-commerce giants Amazon.com and Walmart to show “Country of Origin” tags on goods sold. In addition, local media reports reported that India has been delaying the clearance of imported goods from China in ports, especially electronic items.

In a statement, TikTok India noted:

We have been invited to meet with concerned government stakeholders for an opportunity to respond and submit clarifications. TikTok continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law and has not shared any information of our users in India with any foreign government including the Chinese government.

The #AntiChina sentiment on social media currently driven by border conflict is not a new phenomenon. Anti-China sentiments have been on the rise since Doklam stand-off in 2017. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Indians were blaming China and advising their fellow citizens from using China-made goods and services due to security or privacy issues.

Joining the chorus of #AntiChina sentiments, a village in India's Maharashtra state, Kondhawe-Dhawade, announced a boycott of products from China, adding to the optics of nationalistic sentiments.

Indian dairy company Amul had its Twitter account blocked briefly in June, after it posted advertisements that read “Exit the dragon?” hinting at China's boycott in the Indian social media ecosystem.

Many Twitter users questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi's campaign, “PM Cares Fund”, for receiving money from Chinese smartphone brands and continuing official presence with @MyGov account on TikTok. The MyGov on TikTok account was eventually deleted, and Modi also quit micro-blogging website Weibo.

Trade ban can hurt India more

Beijing-New Delhi diplomatic relations were always relatively frosty but had witnessed a thaw due to economic relationships and an increase in imports-exports in recent years. India-China trade relationship is estimated at over $90 billion, with around $50 billion in the latter's favour. Plus, India is highly dependent on chemical API's (active pharmaceutical ingredients) needed for manufacturing medicines and vaccinations and electronic components powering India's large manufacturing industry, imported from China.

On July 1, Indian Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Nitin Gadkari said the country would not allow Chinese companies to participate in highway projects through any joint partnerships. He further said Chinese investors would not be allowed in various sectors. The Indian telecom ministry has also asked telecom providers and other private companies to boycott all future deals and equipment upgrades involving China.

Economist and policy analyst Mohan Guruswamy said:

Nothing will come of this current call for a ban. If there is no escalation of events at the border, I see Modi taking a trip to China in December.

Industry veteran Deepak Jain, who heads Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India told Livemint:

These (imports) are components in which India currently does not have the manufacturing capability and probably because of the scale we have gone to China for sourcing. Hence there should be no knee jerk reactions to China.

Analysts warn that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi should recognize that if India takes this path, “it has scant ability to hurt China economically, but it has plenty of ability to hurt itself”.

Shubhashish Panigrahi contributed to this post.

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