China bans our tech companies — America must return the ‘favor’

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The Chinese Communist Party just blocked another US social-media app — and the Biden administration must respond.

This time, the party’s target is Clubhouse, a voice-chat app that facilitates conversation rooms that users can freely pass between, listening or speaking. The app has surged in popularity since its March 2020 launch as lockdowns made people eager to embrace new ways of socializing.

Now it has fallen victim to Beijing’s allergy to anything resembling spontaneous civil society. Chinese-based users knew it was not a question of if but how soon the party would act. Still, the efficiency — the Feb. 8 ban came just days after Clubhouse began spreading in the Middle Kingdom — proved party censors are more vigilant than ever.

Communist apparatchiks clearly saw the live format and the size of virtual conversation rooms (up to 5,000) as a particular threat to “public security.” In the final 24 hours on the platforms, thousands of Chinese nationals discussed verboten topics like Taiwan’s status as a nation and Xinjiang concentration camps.

It’s too bad the lively exchanges among users in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland won’t continue. Worldlier types in large cities may pay $50 a month for a virtual private network to bypass the Great Firewall. But for most Chinese Internet users, Clubhouse is now yet another inaccessible foreign app.

America remains impotent in the face of such obvious bullying. US tech companies are shut out of the huge Chinese Internet market, and there is no meaningful demand for reciprocity. It’s too late now for Google, Twitter or Facebook to compete for China’s consumers. But that doesn’t mean the United States must bow down, accepting the one-sided economic relationship of the last three decades.

The party blocks and censors American social media and cultural exports to achieve its own political ends. The effect is to help Chinese companies and harm their US competitors, often our best companies with the greatest potential in China. The imbalance also grants the Chinese access to our data.

The unfairness runs deep. Chinese law requires that social-media firms register large groups of users with the state; foreign companies must store Chinese user data domestically, turning it over to authorities and reporting users as demanded. Even had Clubhouse paid the tremendous costs for compliance, a local competitor would soon dominate the Chinese market for voice-based social media.

The party believes, perhaps correctly, that foreign apps threaten stability and welcome social unrest. But the result is that Chinese tech giants have cover to create a Clubhouse competitor. Chinese firms can copy the outside world, innovate and compete against each other toward creating strong national champions.

Chinese micro-video firm TikTok grew strong domestically before gaining its hundreds of millions of global users, including 80 million in the United States. The Chinese voice social-media app could easily become bigger globally than the US version.

The eclipse of US tech as a result of Chinese trickery follows a long pattern. We already relinquished critical manufacturing, from steel to pharmaceuticals, and barely retain our lead in semiconductors and software. An app like Clubhouse blends tech, culture and branding. This type of soft-power advantage needs to be nourished, not allowed to go the way of our other China-ravaged industries.

President Biden correctly asserts that strengthening US economic foundations is the basis for a strong China policy and that the emphasis must be technology. He must insist that if China blocks our best companies, we have the full right to block theirs.

Ironically, the players China treats worst, the likes of Google and Facebook, also lobby to stop regulations that would prevent Chinese companies from exploiting our market. They cling to the fantasy that someday they will make it big in China.

Biden should ignore their counsel and abide by his goal of forming a coalition of allies to counter China’s bad practices. The message should be that Washington sets different standards for rule-of-law democracies than it does for a regime that disregards any semblance of fair play, prioritizing only its own internal stability and global rise.

This is about more than market share. It’s about security and the endurance of American power. In the age of artificial intelligence, data are gold. China hoards its own gold — and with its growing and underhanded tech dominance, Beijing increasingly owns our gold, too.

Supreme leader Xi Jinping knows what he’s doing. Does our new president?

Nels Frye writes from Boston.

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