The Chinese video sharing app TikTok almost seems made for India – a country where Bollywood films still capture the public imagination and literacy rates are often low.
The app says 120 million Indians use it every month – including some who have managed to become huge celebrities as a result of their captivating uploads. Examples include a shepherd singing along to a Bollywood love song while herding his flock, (the app has a special lip-synch function), as well as minute-long English lessons and tips on how to tie a sari.
But on Monday Delhi banned the use of 59 Chinese apps including TikTok and WeChat in response to the killing of 20 Indian soldiers on a hotly disputed part of the Sino-Indian border last month.
The two sides have been facing off in the Galwan Valley in the western Himalayas since early May. Beijing accuses Indian troops of pushing several kilometres into Chinese territory, while Delhi alleges that China is making new claims on land traditionally controlled by India.
Talks on disengagement continue even as India launched an unofficial boycott of Chinese goods and barred Chinese companies from taking part in Indian highway-building projects.
“Those who eyed Indian territory in Ladakh have received a fitting re-sponse,” Indian leader Narendra Modi said in his monthly radio address this week. (The Chinese refer to the area as Aksai Chin.)
India’s Ministry of Information Technology said it was banning Chinese apps such as TikTok because they were “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India” and because they threatened “state and public order”.
The official statement went on to accuse the apps of “stealing and sur-reptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India”.
Overseas data transfer has become a hot topic in India in recent years as more Indians turn to foreign apps to shop and socialise. The country is currently working on a new data protection law to take the place of government circulars, which mandate varying degrees of data localisation.
This is not the first time TikTok has run into trouble in India – last year a court in Chennai ordered Apple and Google to remove the app from their Indian stores after it was used to share pornographic content. The ban was lifted three weeks later, but TikTok again found itself in the headlines over the summer when it was found to be hosting videos inciting Hindu-Muslim violence and attacks against Dalits, or so-called ‘untouchables’.
In recent weeks Chinese TikTok users have been using the platform to show what they claim to be Chinese military preparations on its side of the border. One clip showed a long convoy of trucks carrying equipment, while another showed shirtless soldiers doing press-ups in the snow.
Meanwhile in India the influencers who had made a name for themselves on TikTok are now scrambling to find other platforms to maintain their earnings and build their personal brands.
Initially it was not clear whether Indian telco providers would actually be able to block usage of apps already installed on smartphones. But by Wednesday accessing WeChat, TikTok, QQ or Sina Weibo from India was difficult.
TikTok celebrities, suddenly deprived of their income, struck a patriotic note saying that they understood the government’s decision to enact the ban.
“Even though we are shocked and saddened, there is an understanding that the nation comes first,” the Deccan Herald quoted Pratik Gaur, a TikTok celebrity manager, as saying.
On Tuesday TikTok’s CEO Kevin Mayer, poached from Disney last month (see WiC497), said the app “continues to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law and places the highest importance on user privacy and integrity”.
“Our daily audience of millions of users in India have come to rely on the joy and inspiration that TikTok provides every day in a unique and democratised environment,” he added.
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