The Taste With Vir: I support the TikTok ban
But the calls for a boycott of all Chinese goods are ill-thought out.Updated: Jul 01, 2020 14:05 IST
Now that we are all agreed that Tik Tok is A Bad Thing, where do we go next? Do we extend the bans/boycotts on services and products from the People’s Republic of China (PMC)? And if yes, how do we go about it?
The first thing to remember is that global boycotts can and do work. South Africa would never have agreed to dismantle apartheid if the world had not boycotted its products and made apartheid-supporting South Africans feel like a global pariahs.
What’s less clear is whether country-to-country boycotts change the attitudes of regimes. Few of us use anything made in Pakistan. And from time to time we have boycotted sporting events with Pakistan. It is not clear whether these boycotts have made any difference to the attitude of the Islamabad regime.
So, I am not sure that an Indian boycott of Chinese goods will change Beijing’s mindset. At present, around two to three per cent of China’s exports come to India (the figure for China’s exports to the US ranges between 15 to 21 per cent, depending on how you calculate it). Presumably President Xi had already thought of the trade implications when he escalated the conflict with India.
Another way of controlling China’s exports to India would be a simple import ban imposed by the government but that, as we shall see poses dangers including retaliation and damage to Indian industry.
The key question about boycotting Chinese imports is: where does the boycott end? It is okay to boycott Chinese smart phones. But do we boycott any product that has Chinese components?
This is almost impossible to do because there is no way of knowing where every single component in say, a machine, was manufactured. And besides, we use Chinese components just as much as the rest of the world. Already, there are complaints that Chinese components and ingredients that are needed for the manufacture of drugs and medical equipment are being arbitrarily held up by Indian customs authorities.The Indian auto industry is also dependent on Chinese components and would be damaged by import bans on Chinese goods.
So yes, it is tempting to call for a boycott on Chinese products. But let’s be clear: we can only boycott the products that are not essential for Indian industry. Otherwise, it’s we who lose out.
We can, quite easily, boycott Chinese consumer goods like TVs and smart phones. It won’t necessarily do much harm to the Chinese economy or make any difference to President XI.
But it will make us feel better about ourselves. And it will make a symbolic point.
Once you get past phones and computers, however, things get more complicated. If you are banning or boycotting the products that Chinese business manufactures, do you extend the same principle to companies that Chinese business owns in India?
This is what some economists call the PayTM problem. While PayTM is hailed as a great Indian achievement (which it is) it is also true that it is majority-owned by Chinese interests. In fact it is owned by the same Chinese conglomerate that owns the UC Browser. So why act against the browser and not PayTM?
If you are to look at companies where Chinese investors hold significant stakes, the list includes nearly every celebrated start-up of the last decade or so: Big Basket, Byjus, Flipkart, MakeMyTrip, Ola, Oyo, Swiggy, Zomato, Snapdeal and many others.
There is nothing immoral or underhand about what these companies are doing. They accepted Chinese investment openly and transparently, within the rules made by the Indian government.
But the truth is that as they prosper and their valuations go up, the Chinese make more and more money. And they get rich from Indian consumers.
So why is it okay to take an Ola cab and help enrich some Chinese entity but wrong to buy a Chinese TV?
It’s a difficult question and I haven’t heard many convincing answers from boycott-advocates.
While the arguments in favour of an economic boycott of China often raise more questions than they answer, there are two good reasons for getting rid of some Chinese entities from India.
The first is security. There are now innumerable cases from all over the world of Chinese products (hardware and software) turning out to have backdoors that allow Chinese interests to access private information.
If you load a Chinese app, it might well start drawing out your personal data. If you use a Chinese chat service, there is a possibility that your private chats might be recorded on a server somewhere in China. If you use a Chinese made mobile phone, the manufacturers could have unlimited access to everything stored on that phone. If you install a Chinese-made smart TV, the makers know how to turn on the camera and microphone remotely without you even knowing.
The risk from Chinese software and hardware is well known and globally recognised. The Chinese themselves insist that their people only use their own apps. In China, locals can’t access Instagram or WhatsApp. They have to use local equivalents so that the state can keep a watch on them. Chinese citizens have no choice but to use these apps.
But we do. So you’d have to be nuts to voluntarily use Chinese apps to communicate. And each time you use a Chinese made smart device, you are probably entrusting your privacy to President Xi and his minions.
This is true of Tik Tok, one of the subjects of the recent ban on Apps. In just three years or so (Tik Tok came to India only in 2018), the app has around 125 million users in India. In smaller towns and among younger people, its use has become so widespread in such a short space of time that its rate of growth dwarfs anything that Instagram or Twitter have managed in India.
The security issues with TikTok are well known. Neither the US army nor the Indian military will allow their personnel to use TikTok. Earlier this year, an Israeli cyber security firm found that a ‘flaw’ allowed its researchers to retrieve personal information from TikTok user accounts. This was one of several weaknesses reported by various security researchers. TikTok said, after each complaint, that it had fixed the ‘flaw’.
But it left open the big questions: if it is so easy for hackers to get personal information from the site, what about the people who actually run the site? How super-easy must it be for them?
My view on Chinese software and hardware ---- and this is long before the Galwan valley conflict --- is that you use them at your own peril.
There is also a second reason for Indians to be wary of Chinese apps. As the world has learned over the last century, soft power often has more influence than hard power. The United States is possibly the most powerful country in the history of civilisation. But you and I are not frightened of American’s military might because we don’t need to be.
We are already in thrall to America because of the various elements of its soft power from jeans to pizzas to Hollywood to rock music. As Rupert Murdoch famously said, modernization has come to mean Americanisation. (And globalisation is often another euphemism for Americanisation.)
Over the last two decades, the US has used technology to leverage its soft power. Apple’s iPhone changed all phones forever. The great social networking and photo-sharing sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp and others have remade the world in America’s image.
That kind of power means much more than the US’s six thousand plus nuclear weapons.
Over the last decade, especially in Asia but also elsewhere in the world, China has tried to mimic America in the soft power game. Cheap Chinese smart phones, messaging apps, conference apps and video-sharing apps (like TikTok) are now ubiquitous. In India, they are carefully aimed at a mid-level segment that hasn’t necessarily grown up on American popular culture.
So what’s the difference? If America can have a hold on one socio-economic demographic than why can’t China have the same kind of hold on another?
It’s a good question but there is a difference.
First of all, the US has no territorial ambitions in India, no history of conflict with us and obviously, no desire to keep us down so that it can be the only power in Asia.
It’s all right for India to be friendly with China (that’s what foreign policy is about) but it is crazy to believe that we can ever be friends.
Moreover, for all its fault and the problems with its companies (Facebook, for instance, is either immoral or downright evil) the United States has systemic checks and balances.
At present, Facebook faces a damaging boycott from many of its advertisers and if Joe Biden gets elected in November, it is possible Facebook may even get broken up.
No such thing will ever happen in China. Many of the largest companies are controlled by elements of the state and face no ethical scrutiny. They are, at the end of the day, instruments to advance the interests of the PRC.
So yes, it is right to be suspicious of the Chinese state and its companies. Hell, it was wrong to ever be trusting of their intentions --- even before tensions flared up along the border.
But it is childish to believe that Xi and his cohorts at the top of the Chinese government will be terrified of a boycott of Chinese electronic goods.
Besides, there is a double-standard implicit in the boycott: why brag that you won’t use a Chinese phone while continuing to enrich China by giving your money to the “Indian” companies that Chinese interests own either mostly or in part?
Don’t buy Chinese TVs if you don’t want to.(I don’t use Chinese electronic products myself.) But the concerns run much deeper than swearing off Chinese phones. And the issues are more complex than a Twitter trend may suggest.
To read more on The Taste With Vir, click here