Saturday, December 2, 2023

NZ’s TikTok ban and the geopolitical tightrope

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Government insists it will have no impact on trade, but it’s not that simple.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) reiterated that the TikTok ban on parliamentary devices is an operational security decision.
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Ben Moore, BusinessDesk technology editor

The banning of TikTok on parliamentary service devices will have no impact on trade between New Zealand and China, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade – but it may not be so simple.

TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance and while some say there is little difference between a social media platform owned by a United States-based company and one owned by a China-based company, others say that the Chinese government’s power over the private sector makes the app a risk to national security.

The move, which was announced on March 17, was made on the advice of cybersecurity experts, according to a statement from the Parliamentary Service’s chief executive, Rafael Gonzalez-Montero.

“This decision has been made based on our own experts’ analysis and following discussion with our colleagues across government and internationally,” he said.

“Based on this information, the service has determined that the risks are not acceptable in the current New Zealand Parliamentary environment.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) reiterated that the TikTok ban on parliamentary devices is an operational security decision.

“China remains an important trading partner and we do not expect there to be any impacts for bilateral trade,” the spokesperson said.

Important indeed: China is NZ’s largest trade partner with exports to the world’s most populous country reaching $21.45 billion in 2022, and imports clocking in at $16.26bn.

In the face of economic tension between China and the US, NZ has to walk the line between the most important market for GDP and working with the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which includes NZ, the United Kingdom, the US, Australia and Canada.

If MFAT’s response was on the optimistic side, the response of Fonterra, NZ’s biggest exporter of goods to China, was artfully non-committal.

“We closely monitor geopolitical and trade developments across all the markets we operate in,” a Fonterra spokesperson said. “China remains an important market for Fonterra, and we are optimistic about the opportunities for us there.”

Alexander Gillespie, a law professor at the University of Waikato, said the NZ government likely has a good reason for a decision like the TikTok ban, but this kind of move will always offend someone.

“It’s about reciprocity. If you offend another country, it will come back at you,” he said. “There will be something, it could be boats being held up at the docks for example, but there is also a cost for ignoring intelligence partners, such as what the Five Eyes will share on cybersecurity.”

It is clear China has taken note of the ban, based on the reply by a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, when he was asked about it in a recent press conference.

His reply had echoes of the “it’s not fair” stance that Huawei proponents took when it was the subject of bans last decade.

“China always believes that data security should not be used as a tool to overstretch the national security concept to hobble foreign companies,” Wenbin said.

“We call on countries concerned to earnestly abide by the rules of the market economy and the principle of fair competition, stop overstretching and abusing the concept of national security, and provide a fair, transparent and non-discriminatory environment for foreign businesses.”

There is some irony in China calling on countries to “earnestly abide by the rules of the market economy” considering the granular control over the digital economy that is offered by the Great Firewall of China.

In fact, Facebook and other Meta-owned social media have been banned in China since 2009.

The question of why there is a ban on Chinese social media on NZ government devices and not those from US developers is also worth considering, but as Gillespie pointed out, China’s legal and governmental structures have key differences from most western countries.

In China, the government exercises a larger level of control over the way that businesses operate.

While it may not be as overt as some might expect, the line between public and private in China is definitely murkier than in NZ.

While the US government can and has exercised power to mandate that a company share data, Gillespie points out that the process there is relatively transparent.

But in a country like China, where the government has the will and the way to choose what gets said about its activities, and by whom, within its own borders, it creates uncertainty.

That’s not to say that China’s government definitely is accessing data held by private companies, just that there is a possibility that it could and that no one would know about if they did.

While the ban of TikTok on devices that have access to the parliamentary network sounds like a small move, the symbolic weight is at least worth noting in the global context of what some have called the sequel to the 20th century’s Cold War.

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