Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 9, No. 11, November 2021
Last year’s “TikTok war” revealed unprecedented hostility of the US government towards the Chinese tech newcomer. The seemingly innocuous software was developed by ByteDance, a Chinese unicorn company. TikTok is a sister app of Douyin, created for the Chinese market. Both apps allow users to share and watch short videos. In July 2020, then-President Donald Trump accused TikTok of a series of breaches, the most serious of which was sharing user data with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Levine, 2020). Yet, some experts, including Adam Segal from the Council of Foreign Relations, considered the near-ban a smokescreen to hinder the growth of the most globally successful Chinese app to date (Campbell, 2020). In 2020, TikTok was the most downloaded app globally, with 89 million new users just in the US (Geyser, 2021). To date, 23% of Americans use or have watched TikTok, with an average American user having spent 14.3 hours monthly on the app in 2020 (Tankovska, 2021).
This unique outreach to, and popularity among the Western audience, positions TikTok as a potential source of China’s soft power. While researchers and journalists widely covered TikTok’s cybersecurity and data privacy concerns (Fannin, 2019; Fergus, Fritz, and Impiombato, 2020; Segev, 2020), the app’s cultural influence remains undiscussed. As an artefact of popular culture, the app can convey values that its creators engrained into it (Light, Burgess, and Duguay, 2016, 882). In an authoritarian regime like that of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s, the line between CCP’s and broader societal values becomes blurry (Edney, 2012, 911).
This research aims to test the above assumptions empirically by answering the question, “To what extent is TikTok a source of China’s soft power?”. The study will employ the walkthrough method to analyse the app’s interface ethnographically and contrast the mode of use with the objectives of Chinese soft power policies.
The contributions to research and society that this paper offers are twofold. Firstly, analysing an app as a source of soft power places software among other popular culture artefacts and so allows a new sense to be made of technological developments. Secondly, this is the first time that the walkthrough method is applied to political analysis, allowing for a systematic analysis of political ideas in new, technological forms of popular culture.
Software’s soft power
Soft power constitutes “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants” (Nye, 2008, 94). Such influence happens through co-optation and attraction rather than intimidation by financial or military means; ultimately, soft power rests on “the ability to shape preferences” (Nye, 2008, 95).
Three aspects form a country’s soft power: culture, political values, and foreign policies (Nye, 2008, 96). This research focuses on culture for two reasons: firstly, it understands apps as a form of popular culture; secondly, it recognises that the CCP’s pursuit of soft power is focused on culture rather than political values.
Politics takes place in objects of popular culture (Weldes & Rowley in Caso & Hamilton, 2015, 24). Cultural ‘texts’ discuss but also create world politics (Weldes & Rowley in Caso & Hamilton, 2015, 26). Through discourse, cultural artefacts construct the very object they are describing (Weldes & Rowley in Caso & Hamilton, 2015, 26). Since popular culture, in its ubiquity, constitutes “our everyday common sense” (Weldes & Rowley in Caso & Hamilton, 2015, 25), its reach is significant.
Apps can be seen as popular culture ‘texts’ due to their aim at captivating masses through providing entertainment. This focus on general entertainment makes TikTok a potential source of China’s soft power. As a cultural text, an app showcases the ideological discourse of its producers (Light et al., 2016, 883). Guiding users in a specific way and so shaping their experience contains “embedded cultural references” (Light et al., 2016, 882).
China’s soft power
The aversion to discussing politics and the peaceful image of China constitute the main axes of the country’s soft power goals. The Chinese version of soft power makes it almost synonymous with cultural attractiveness at the expense of political values (Gill & Huang, 2006, 30). CCP officials consider culture the core reflection of a country’s influence (Edney, 2012, 913). China currently spends close to $10 billion annually on increasing its presence in “media, publishing, education, the arts, sports, and other domains” (Shambaugh, 2015, 100). Simultaneously, the CCP avoids connecting political values to its soft power endeavours (Edney, 2012, 911).
China’s soft power pursuit differs from the Western understanding of the concept in that it is directed equally towards its domestic and international population. The Chinese party-state has embraced the concept of soft power since the 1990s, but as Edney (2012, 900) points out, this only happened because the CCP considers its soft power expansion compatible with the existing party goals. Therefore, the CCP sees building up soft power as part of its larger scheme of “nation-building through cultural construction” (Edney, 2012, 913). As such, soft power in the PRC is targeted both towards its own as well as a global population.
The new “major strategic thought” of the CCP under Xi Jinping is the “Chinese dream” (Wang, 2013, 1). Focused on realising “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, the ideology aims at reviving China’s long lost “glory and strength” (Wang, 2013, 4). The Chinese dream has a double focus: nationally, it aims at establishing domestic unity. Globally, it strives to regain China’s perceived “lost international status” (Wang, 2013, 9). Both foci build on the previous General Secretary, Hu Jintao’s, foreign policy ideas of a “harmonious world” and “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Promoting harmony as a political value to foreign audiences means promoting a principle of non-interference – allowing countries to co-exist “peacefully” by letting them, as opposed to the American approach, develop their politics and economy on their own (Segal, 2017, 1). Simultaneously, the “harmonious world” implies “harmonising” – a satire word for silencing – dissidents at home (Poole, 2014). In a similar paradox, China’s image as a peace-loving country is often deployed to defend its actions, regarded by foreign actors as offensive (Wang, 2013, 9).
CCP’s grip over China’s culture leaves scholars sceptical about the effectiveness of the country’s soft power efforts. Soft power, generally, is likely to get hindered by arrogantly promoted policies, which are clear to be serving a country’s domestic goal (Nye, 2008, 102). Scholars conclude that this is the case with many Chinese soft power efforts. Gill & Huang (2006, 30) blames a “rigid domestic political system” for China’s imbalance between its cultural attractiveness and domestic values. Shambaugh (2015, 107) adds that “Soft power cannot be bought. It must be earned” in a critique of the CCP’s centralised effort to export the country’s cultural attractiveness.
Able to control information flow across regions and languages, TikTok has political power. There are good reasons to suspect that the CCP controls or influences this power. Particularly the CCP’s relationship with ByteDance’s, CEO Zhang Yiming, and TikTok’s previous history of censorship. Yet, the rise of a new, entertainment- and commercially-focused consumerist culture in China offers an alternative view on whose soft power TikTok conveys.
During the “TikTok war”, Yiming rejected the accusations that Western user data reaches the CCP party apparatus (Campbell, 2020). Yet Yiming’s relationship with the CCP is, at best, murky. In 2018, he was forced to retract his previous app for content creation, Toutiao, which became popular in mainland China due to CCP’s discontent over its alleged “content violations” (Bandurski, 2018). He then published a public apology where he stated that his technological endeavours did not, among other sins, comply with the “socialist core values” (Bandurski, 2018). This incident shows that TikTok is, in most probability, not allowed to operate outside the party rule and creates expectations that the app does carry some strategic communications on behalf of the CCP.
Besides, a study published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) proved that TikTok deploys wide-ranging censorship on its Western platforms (Fergus et al., 2020, 3). The app has a global track record of suppressing and hiding content criticising political figures as distant from China’s geopolitical allyship, such as Donald Trump, India’s Narendra Modi, or Japan’s Shinzo Abe (Fergus et al., 2020, 5). Its American policy envisioned hiding videos with any political content, not just China-related – although matters deemed uncomfortable by the CCP, such as the treatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Tibet’s independence, or Falun Gong, are also censored (Fergus et al., 2020, 9). The moderation went beyond politics to also limit the reach of members of the LGBTQ+, disabled, or overweight communities (Fergus et al., 2020, 10). These examples allege that TikTok promotes a certain worldview through its platform – whether this worldview is that of the CCP or another actor, however, is a separate question.
China’s rapid economic development resulted in the growth of a new generation to which Yiming belongs. Kang (2012, 917) views this generation as the new core of the country’s soft power. It stems from digital consumer culture and embodies Western consumer and entertainment values while retaining a distinct sense of Chinese cultural heritage (Kang, 2012, 930). The entertainment-centred consumerist values clash with the CCP, who criticised the rising generation as unleashing “materialistic desires at the expense of social cohesiveness” (Kang, 2012, 918). Therefore, this new generation is expected to be more culturally close to the West while promoting some core Chinese cultural ideas. Yiming’s app can, supposedly, reflect generational values. Rather than complying with the party line, these values are influenced by it.
Finally, any commercial product is bound by commercial pressures. TikTok’s primary purpose is to generate income for its investors, and so the app’s creators will offer products and services that, in their perception, will yield the highest profits (Shen, 2017, 59). This commercial motivation can diverge from the party line, pointing at yet another potential source of TikTok’s cultural values (Shen, 2017, 118).
The walkthrough method guided the analysis of China’s soft power within TikTok. The method treats mobile apps as socio-cultural artefacts and so allows for their critical analysis. It links the app’s user environment and its interface elements to identify “cultural discourses that shape and are perpetuated by interface elements” (Light et al., 2016, 888).
The second, more extensive step in data gathering was analysing TikTok’s interface. This ethnographic endeavour aimed at testing how the app’s context played out in its technical and visual layout. The researcher traced “key actors”: user interface arrangement, functions and features, content and tone, and symbolic representations (Light et al., 2016, 891). The tracing occurred in three key stages – registration, everyday use, and account closure (Light et al., 2016, 892-895). Registration and account closure outlined the data policy of the app. The everyday use consisted of scrolling through the ‘For You’ section as well as chosen hashtags – #tiananmensquare and #xinjiang – and analysing the top 20 videos. The two sections allowed for analysing both the regular interface and the specific issues that are controversial to the CCP to test the findings of the ASPI report. Field notes and screenshots accompanied the observations.
Silence on the web
TikTok’s website bears no obvious links to the PRC, presenting the app as a personalised, entertainment-focused enterprise with a global focus instead. However, such obscuring of the app’s origin serves both TikTok’s commercial interests and the app’s effectiveness as a source of China’s soft power. Both are linked to the user’s trust in the platform’s objectivity, common in the digital era and extending beyond TikTok to all major app providers (Zhao & Balague, 2015). The commercial interest suffers if users become suspicious, but their suspicion would also undermine the app’s cultural messaging credibility.
TikTok’s characteristics are apparent in the app’s tagline, the ‘About’ section, and the Community Guidelines. The tagline “Make your day” highlights the hyper-personalisation of the app, where users consume content tailored to their interests, which uplifts their mood. The ‘About’ section is a laconic, two-sentence paragraph. It presents TikTok as “the leading destination for short-form mobile video” with a mission to “inspire creativity and bring joy”. The mission points at TikTok’s entertainment goal, circling back to “making the user’s day”. The ‘About’ section also outlines the global outreach of the app by enumerating cities hosting TikTok’s offices. Beijing is not among the 11 mentioned cities. The only distant connection to China, impossible to decipher for unaware users, is TikTok’s logo. It visually represents a “vibrating sound”, the literal translation of the app’s Chinese name.
Instead of focusing on the origin of the app, the ‘About’ section suggests, the users should rather celebrate its global outreach. This sentiment is shared in the Community Guidelines, an extensive document outlining cases that would result in content moderation. The guidelines highlight that TikTok values “the global nature of our community” and strives to consider “the breadth of cultural norms where we operate”. While resembling the ideals of political correctness, this strive also echoes China’s “harmonious world” policy, particularly the non-interference principle. The global outreach of the app is also visible in its various available languages.
The languages also reveal the app’s focus on Asia as one of the world’s largest and fastest expanding markets – out of 42 offered languages, 20 are from Asian countries. Only simplified Chinese characters (Hanzi) is included, but Indian users can – or could since the app is now banned in the country – enjoy nine different Indian dialects. All in all, regular Western users would most probably not recognise the app’s Chinese origin if they only read the website – or even if they used the app on a daily basis. They would, therefore, be more likely to perceive the app as objective or at least non-affected by state actors, increasing the chances of the app’s soft power being effective.
Chinaless everyday use
In everyday use, too, TikTok bears no connection with the PRC. Yet again, the non-linkage works to the app’s benefit as a commercial endeavour and as a source of China’s soft power by building user trust. The trust becomes necessary when closely analysing the app’s de-politicisation.
The app’s mobile interface focuses on functionality, giving the user all the necessary information about the video, such as the number of likes and comments, the assigned hashtags, the author, and the share button. Nothing in the interface bears any links with China. Yet, the platform’s de-politicisation suggests a potential alignment with the CCP’s goals.
The focus on lifestyle makes the platform almost completely de-politicised. A user can choose whether to engage with the ‘Discover’ or the ‘For You’ section. The former collects trending hashtags while the latter offers a personalised, never-ending feed of videos. The sections primarily include content about daily life (#mewondering, #realstruggle), creativity (#3D photos, #slowmofashion), sports (#getfit, #workoutmotivation), or, generally, ‘fun’ (#dadjokes). No political videos appeared in the researcher’s daily scroll through 20 top ‘For You’ videos. The most political hashtags observed in the ‘Discover’ section related to humanitarianism rather than geopolitics: they called on users to fight racism in football, care for the planet, and bring attention to global hunger.
Simultaneously, some accusations on TikTok’s censorship seem outdated or covered up. TikTok’s ‘Discover’ section included topics that it was previously accused of censoring, such as several hashtags on Pride Month. This observation suggests that, at least currently, TikTok does not censor LBGTQ+-related content, as opposed to the findings of the 2020 report by ASPI. The Chinese persecution of its Muslim minorities also seems far away from TikTok. The platform “celebrates” Ramadan with the hashtag #EidMubarak, which encourages users to share their favourite ways of spending the Muslim holy month.
The de-politicisation is in line with the CCP’s refraining from mixing political values into cultural exports. It also supports the party’s objective of not interfering with other countries’ internal affairs, promoted as part of the “harmonious world” ideology. Yet, simultaneously, de-politicisation and focus on lifestyle characterise all social media apps, albeit to various extents. Being to a large extent user-driven, TikTok only responds to the needs of its users. TikTok also stimulates its platform in a direction desired by the users, as commercial logic dictates. The inclusion of previously censored topics is similarly ambiguous: on the one hand, it suggests complying with public pressures. On the other hand, however, it could have been deployed to cover up the CCP’s influence over the content, in line with the critiques that soft power only works when undisclosed.
Covering up controversies
The analysis of the 20 top videos under the search terms “Tiananmen square” and “Xinjiang” revealed a considerable deployment of the CCP’s soft power through content moderation. The two search terms were chosen because while both are sources of tension between the CCP and the Western world, their public awareness differs. While the former is over 40 years old and widely discussed, the latter is current and vigorously denied by the CCP, causing severe strains on Sino-Western relations. Both searches revealed a significant degree of content moderation. However, as expected from the degree of public awareness, the moderation was less intense in the case of Tiananmen square than the Xinjiang region.
While none of the topics was fully censored, TikTok’s algorithm showcased videos supporting the CCP line at the top of the search, despite their lower number of likes or earlier posting dates. The video critical of the CCP’s handling of the student protests in 1989 with the most likes appeared only in 12th place, while the 1st video – critical of TikTok’s algorithm, which will be elaborated on later – had over 100 times fewer likes. The most popular video on Xinjiang, critical of the treatment of Muslims, only appeared 16th in the feed. The second-most popular and the first critical video in the ‘Top’ feed on Xinjiang, comparing the treatment of the Uighurs to the Holocaust, only appeared as 10th in the search. As likes and dates are the most straightforward positioning indicators, one is left wondering what is the algorithm-decided order of appearance in the ‘Top’ section based on.
The proportion of critical to supportive videos, especially for Xinjiang, also suggested the workings of content moderation. While the content about the Tiananmen square was equally supportive and critical of the CCP, the videos on Xinjiang showed much stronger signs of content moderation that favoured the CCP’s line. Out of 20 videos, only 3 presented the province as a site where human rights violations take place. This is an important observation considering that many people, especially young ones, receive their news mainly from social media (Lee, Hoi, Kim & Kim, 2014). Subsequently, the opinion-shaping power of TikTok increases.
It is unclear how many videos on the two controversial topics have been shadow banned. In its Terms of Service, TikTok commits to informing users whose videos were deleted about the deletion. It also outlines instances when a user’s video could be shadow banned, although without using the specific term: “(…) videos that could be considered upsetting or depict things that may be shocking to a general audience – we may reduce discoverability, including by redirecting search results or limiting distribution in the For You feed”. The Terms of Service do not commit TikTok to inform users about such instances, making it significantly harder to research the scale of the issue.
The supportive videos on both topics attracted a significant number of users displaying anti-American sentiments. Comments such as “the CIA trained them [the students in 1989 protests] well” or videos claiming that the calls for human rights in Xinjiang are created by CIA-sponsored, imperialist media were commonplace. By keeping such anti-American conspiracy theories on its platform, TikTok violated its own Community Guidelines. The Guidelines call on users not to post, among others, “Misinformation that incites hate or prejudice” and “Conspiratorial content that attacks a specific protected group or includes a violent call to action, or denies a violent or tragic event occurred”. According to the Guidelines, such content will be deleted, and its user warned. TikTok’s failure to live up to its Community Guidelines points to their instrumental use to cover up content unfavourable to the CCP.
The promotion of videos supporting the CCP shows that TikTok conforms with the CCP’s line regarding politically sensitive issues. Yet, the discrepancy between censoring content about the Tiananmen square and the Xinjiang region shows that TikTok’s creators are responsive to the mounting pressure about the app’s censorship policies. Soft power consists of “understanding of how they [other nations] are hearing your messages and adapting them accordingly” (Nye, 2008, 103). Censorship accusations diminish TikTok’s soft power, so the app’s creators adjust their messaging to appear less influenced by the CCP. By obscuring TikTok’s Chinese origins and allowing some critical content, TikTok creates an illusion of objectivity and ensuing credibility in guiding its platform. Such an illusion will guide some unaware users to believe in the most positive content on the two topics, especially Xinjiang. Establishing a narrative that promotes the “peaceful vision” of the region is a crucial goal for the CCP, an achievement of which TikTok proves to support.
The comments and videos on both the Tiananmen Square and Xinjiang revealed a high degree of anti-CCP suspicion among TikTok users, diminishing the app’s soft power. Five out of top 20 videos on Tiananmen square dealt with TikTok’s censorship, from censoring and shadow banning the videos to testing the AI voice’s ability to pronounce the square’s name. Some videos were experiments on shadow banning where users used the hashtag “Tiananmen square” to see if their video disappears. Although these did not, as mentioned above, the real scale of shadow banning is hard to assess.
The majority of videos and their comments engaged simultaneously in political satire on the CCP’s silence around the Tiananmen square massacre and TikTok’s enforcing of that silence. For example, one of the most popular phrases was “Nothing happened on June 4, 1989”, accompanied by jokes such as “Why did you post a blank video” or “[redacted]”. Although the Xinjiang hashtag did not include any such videos, user awareness was visible in the comments. One, posted under a video of a happy Uighur soldier dancing for his PRC soldier colleagues and liked 363 times, stated, “How did I get on CCP TikTok”. One of the responses, liked 9 times, concluded that “The CCP owns TikTok”.
The videos and their comments revealed an awareness among TikTok users that the app’s content moderation practices favour the CCP. Such awareness is dangerous to the success of the platform’s soft power endeavours, as it undermines their credibility. Once the users realise that the information they are given is not neutral but influenced by a political actor, they will be more likely to evaluate it critically.
To conclude, TikTok is a limited source of China’s soft power. The CCP’s power is displayed almost equally to commercial interests. The app’s Chinese identity is hidden on the website and in its interface to the point that an everyday user would not be aware of it. This obscuring of identity benefits both TikTok’s commercial purposes and the app’s effectiveness as a source of the CCP’s soft power. If the users perceived the platform as too close to the CCP, a part of them would stop using it, hindering the company’s commercial growth. Simultaneously, such user perception would make any references to the Chinese culture lose credibility, hindering the possibility of using TikTok to enhance China’s soft power.
The app’s de-politicisation, too, serves a double function: it upholds the CCP’s principle of non-interference but also complies with the rules that guide commercial app development. TikTok’s focus on lifestyle promotes a “peaceful” world where everyone is occupied with their own hobbies, “making their days”, as the app’s tagline goes. While this fits with the CCP’s vision on foreign relations, it is also the logic that guides the design of any app focused on content creation.
The CCP’s influence over TikTok becomes visible only when one deliberately engages with content on issues the party deems controversial. TikTok’s content moderation is subtler than censorship and instead involves positioning. The app’s algorithm pushes videos critical of the CCP behind those supporting the party, even though the former are more popular or posted more recently. This finding suggests that TikTok tries to hide the CCP’s line under cover of algorithm-run objectivity. Supposedly, such hiding happens in response to the damning 2020 report by ASPI and other criticisms of the app’s censorship practices. Yet again, appearing objective is both in TikTok’s commercial and the CCP’s soft power objectives. Objectivity and non-connection to a state party increase an app’s credibility, which increases sales and the efficiency of spreading the CCP’s soft power.
The main challenge to TikTok’s position as a source of the CCP’s soft power is user awareness. Many users that posted or commented on posts that outlined controversial topics satirised the CCP’s grip over the platform. Awareness about a state actor’s meddling in seemingly objective software reduces the credibility of the claims that are made on the platform.
This research comes with several limitations, which offer the potential to engage in further research. Firstly, the finding of intertwined commercial and soft power interests raises questions about intentionality in discussing soft power. Can a cultural text that fulfils other functions beyond soft power, or has origins beyond soft power imperatives, still be classified as a source of soft power? Answering this question would require a systematic analysis of literature on soft power. Secondly, the scale of shadow banning that TikTok performs is impossible to assess by ordinary research, given the secrecy accompanying the app’s private holding and the CEO’s ties with the CCP. A study that undertakes this research gap would have to combine conventional research methods, such as interviews or simulations, with data from TikTok’s registries.
Zuza Nazaruk is a Rotterdam based freelance journalist. She holds an MA in International Relations at Leiden University. Her research interests include environmental migration, the interplay between technology and politics, and systems thinking.
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