Good morning. This is Katherine, filling in for Alan, from London.
The rise, and rise, and rise of the short video app TikTok has been nothing short of fascinating. It seemed to shoot to meteoric popularity almost out of nowhere. First, it was a niche source of viral dance clips and comedy sketches with a growing userbase among American teens. Next, it was a star-making machine for some of those same teenagers, and drawing even established comedians into the fold. Now, it’s reached the next milestone—finding itself at the centre of major geopolitical flash points.
How did this happen? Naomi Xu Elegant, one of Fortune’s reporters in Hong Kong, dug into the app’s dramatic rise, and its relationship with its parent company, China’s ByteDance.
“TikTok is by far one of China’s most successful Internet exports, but its high-profile global presence has made it a bugbear for wariness of the Chinese government and a geopolitical hot potato,” Naomi writes. “TikTok is attempting to distance itself from its owner, but growing global suspicion of Big Tech in general, and of Chinese government influence in particular, spell trouble for the app.”
That has included a ban on TikTok by the Indian government—as the app’s largest market, the country was a source of 89 million monthly active users—after a clash with Chinese soldiers. And then there was the app’s departure from Hong Kong, a small but symbolic market, in light of the new National Security Law. And now, there’s the threat by President Donald Trump to ban the app as retaliation against China, a move that is already drawing the ire of millions of American teenagers.
(The army of angry teens effect is nothing to be sniffed at: remember the activism of K-pop fans for the Black Lives Matter movement, and their controversial role in Trump’s Tulsa rally bust last month?)
The TikTok saga is just one part of the story of Big Tech caught in geopolitical crosshairs, and it’s a story the Hong Kong team has been avidly covering. You can follow Naomi’s reporting here, Grady McGregor’s dispatches here, and Eamon Barrett’s here.