The US president's twin executive orders, one for each app, take effect in 45 days and would strangle the ability of the Chinese apps to operate in the United States.

An employee walks outside the headquarters of ByteDance, the owner of video sharing app TikTok, in Beijing on August 5, 2020.
An employee walks outside the headquarters of ByteDance, the owner of video sharing app TikTok, in Beijing on August 5, 2020. (AFP)

China's foreign ministry has accused Washington of misusing national security as an excuse to "unreasonably suppress" foreign companies following US President Donald Trump's ban on dealings with the Chinese owners of consumer apps TikTok and WeChat.

Trump had earlier on Thursday ordered a sweeping but unspecified ban, although it remained unclear if he has the legal authority to actually ban the apps from the US.

The twin executive orders, one for each app, take effect in 45 days. They call on the Commerce Secretary to define the banned dealings by that time. 

While the wording of the orders is vague, some experts said it appears intended to bar the popular apps from the Apple and Google app stores, which could effectively remove them from distribution in the US.

“This is an unprecedented use of presidential authority,” Eurasia Group analyst Paul Triolo said in an email. At a minimum, he said, the orders appear to “constitute a ban on the ability of US app stores run by Apple and Google to include either mobile app after 45 days.”

Triolo said the orders may face legal challenges and warned that Beijing is likely to “react harshly, at least rhetorically.” 

Trump’s orders cited legal authority from the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act.

READ MORE: The TikTok saga gives us a glimpse into a techno-nationalist future

Strong reaction

Beijing will defend the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese businesses and the United States would have to bear the consequences of its actions, ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters during a daily briefing, without giving details.

"The US is using national security as an excuse and using state power to oppress non-American businesses. That’s just a hegemonic practice. China is firmly opposed to that," he said.

In a statement TikTok vowed to "pursue all remedies available to us in order to ensure... our company and our users are treated fairly – if not by the Administration, then by the US courts."

Data security concerns

The Trump administration has railed against the threat from China, and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have also raised concerns about TikTok, including censorship, misinformation campaigns, the safety of user data and children’s privacy. 

But the administration has provided no specific evidence that TikTok has made US users’ data available to the Chinese government. Instead, officials point to the hypothetical threat that lies in the Chinese government’s ability to demand cooperation from Chinese companies.

Earlier in the week, Trump threatened a deadline of Sept. 15 to “close down” TikTok unless Microsoft or another company acquires it

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday expanded efforts on a program it calls "Clean Network" would focus on five areas and include steps to prevent various Chinese apps, as well as Chinese telecoms companies, from accessing sensitive information on American citizens and businesses, citing alleged security threats and calling out TikTok and WeChat by name.

TikTok and Microsoft had no immediate replies to queries. Tencent declined to comment.

Leading mobile security experts say TikTok is no more intrusive in its harvesting of user data and monitoring of user activity than US apps owned by Facebook and Google.

The order doesn't seem to ban Americans from using TikTok, said Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame. She added that such an order would be nearly impossible to enforce in the first place.

“If goal is to get teenagers to stop using TikTok, I’m not sure an executive order will stop them,” she said. “Every teenager knows how to use a VPN (a virtual private network). They will just pretend they are in Canada.”

Escalating tensions

The latest move comes soon after the US ordered China to vacate its consulate in Houston, Texas followed by China's order requiring the US to vacate its consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

TikTok is a video-sharing app that's widely popular among young people in the US and elsewhere. It is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, which operates a separate version for the Chinese market. TikTok insists it does not store US user information in China and would not share it with the Chinese government.

TikTok says it has 100 million US users and hundreds of millions globally. According to research firm App Annie, TikTok saw 50 million weekly active users in the US during the week of July 19, the latest available figure. That's up 75 percent from the first week of the year.

READ MORE: TikTok 'not planning on going anywhere' as Trump ban looms

WeChat and its sister app Weixin in China are hugely popular messaging apps; many Chinese expatriates use WeChat to stay in touch with friends and family back home. WeChat also says it doesn’t share data with the Chinese government and never has, and does not store international user data in China. US user data is stored in Canada.

The order against Tencent could have ramifications for users beyond WeChat, which is crucial for personal communications and organizations that do business with China. Tencent also owns parts or all of major game companies like Epic Games, publisher of Fortnite, a major video game hit, and Riot Games, which is behind League of Legends.

READ MORE: What are the implications of a US-TikTok standoff?

Source: TRTWorld and agencies