ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, has worked hard to portray the video app as operating autonomously from Beijing amid growing concerns over its handling of user data
ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, has worked hard to portray the video app as operating autonomously from Beijing to deflect growing concerns over its handling of user data © AFP via Getty Images

TikTok, Zoom and Microsoft have become the latest companies to rethink operations in Hong Kong after Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law that has raised concerns over the handling of data in the city.

TikTok, the video app that is owned by Chinese technology company ByteDance, has chosen to exit the city entirely, saying in a statement it had decided to stop operations “in light of recent events”.

Microsoft and Zoom, the video conferencing app, said they would temporarily block Hong Kong authorities from accessing user data when requested. 

The moves came a day after Facebook, Google and Twitter, which do not operate in mainland China, announced similar moves. Apple, which generated $44bn of revenue in Greater China last year — an area that includes mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan — said it was “assessing” the impact of the new law. 

TikTok, which last year said it had 150,000 users in the city of almost 7.5m people, did not say if Hong Kong residents would be able to use Douyin, the Chinese version of the app that can be downloaded only from a Chinese app store on the mainland.

A person with direct knowledge of the situation said ByteDance had “no plans to bring Douyin to Hong Kong app stores at this time”.

Microsoft, which also owns social network LinkedIn, said it typically received only a small number of requests from Hong Kong authorities for user data but was “pausing our responses to these requests as we conduct our review”. 

Microsoft and LinkedIn both operate in mainland China. LinkedIn has 50m users in the country, according to Microsoft, making it one of the site’s biggest markets. But the platform has been criticised for censoring content Beijing sees as sensitive. This has included material related to the Tiananmen Square protests and the profiles of human rights activists.

Zoom said: “We’re actively monitoring the developments in Hong Kong SAR, including any potential guidance from the US government. We have paused processing any data requests from, and related to, Hong Kong SAR.”

Qi Bin, a Beijing-based lawyer at Jin Mao Partners, said Microsoft was trying to “buy more time” to figure out the new law’s implications. “The Hong Kong national security law happened too quick and they need more time to sort out what data they have stored in Hong Kong and to work out compliance issues . . . Then they will come back,” he added.

Other analysts raised the possibility that Beijing may be trying to extend the “Great Firewall”, which allows it to control internet access in the mainland, to semi-autonomous Hong Kong.

“My concern remains the same since the law was announced — that we may get our very own version of the ‘Great Firewall’ of China or even an extension of it,” said Paul Haswell, a Hong Kong-based partner at law firm Pinsent Masons.

Andy Yen, founder of ProtonMail, the encrypted email service, cautioned that TikTok’s response should be read cautiously as a Chinese company would be forced to comply with Beijing’s rules. “They said will not operate in Hong Kong, not that they will not comply,” he said.

Mark Natkin, founder of Marbridge Consulting, a Beijing-based consulting firm, said ByteDance had been working hard to convince the world that TikTok maintained a degree of autonomy from Beijing after the company had come under attack in Washington.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said in an interview with Fox News on Monday that the Trump administration was considering banning Chinese social media apps including TikTok. “We are certainly looking at it,” he added.

TikTok has located its data servers outside mainland China and insisted it would not surrender its user information to Beijing, Mr Natkin said. But the company has been dogged by concerns about user privacy, national security and censorship. 

Pulling TikTok from the Hong Kong market was an “easy decision”, he added.

“It is sacrificing a relatively small user base to avoid potentially getting bogged down in a no-win situation,” Mr Natkin added. “The company doesn’t want to get caught in any situation right now where its actions might appear . . . to contradict that message.” 

Additional reporting by Patrick McGee in San Francisco


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