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Why the stress around Chinese apps in the US is overblown

Chinese apps are dominating US app stores right now, but they could get caught in still-expanding efforts to ban TikTok.

March 1, 2023
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Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Envato

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If you take a look at app stores in the US right now, you might be surprised to find they are dominated by Chinese programs.

On Monday, the three most downloaded free apps on Apple’s App Store were Temu, TikTok, and CapCut (a TikTok video editor); the same chart in the Google Play Store was led by Temu, TikTok, and Shein. All four programs are made by Chinese social media or e-commerce companies. 

While TikTok and Shein have been popular for a long time, the recent ascension of Temu, a discount shopping app that we first covered in October, is making a new reality clear: Chinese-made apps are having a moment in the US. 

Their success is partly because Chinese tech companies, having survived a decade of cutthroat competition in the domestic consumer tech industry, can now be even better than Silicon Valley at making easy-to-use and addictive apps. But it’s also because they are spending generously on marketing: Temu is estimated to have spent some $14 million on its two Super Bowl ads (in which it also promised a $10 million giveaway). 

The unprecedented popularity of Chinese apps is a bit jarring juxtaposed against another story currently dominating the news cycle: expanding bans of TikTok use on government devices. The US has been trying to limit the app’s reach at the state and federal level since December. This week, it was joined by the European Commission and the Canadian government, both of which decided to ban TikTok on staffers’ work phones. The premise of these bans is that the Chinese government could use TikTok to manipulate what federal workers see or to acquire sensitive information like their GPS locations. 

The same treatment could easily spread to other Chinese apps. Although public awareness of their links to the Chinese government might not be as strong, some people are trying to change that. For example, the Special Competitive Studies Project, a new think tank founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, specifically named Shein, Temu, and CapCut (as well as WeChat) as apps that “could pose similar challenges” as TikTok in a February 15 post.

There are real concerns about these apps’ privacy protocols. But I believe most of the anxiety around having Chinese apps on our phones is overblown and politicized. 

I’m not alone. Kevin Xu, a technologist and the author behind the bilingual newsletter ​Interconnected, wrote last week that “the DC policymaking circle has moved beyond TikTok to construct an all-encompassing worldview where all apps made by Chinese tech companies are bad.” 

And Xu says even the risks surrounding TikTok have been overblown. “There is currently an evidentiary gap of actual harm that TikTok has done to any actual American that’s of a national security nature,” he tells me. 

Lotus Ruan, who has conducted technical analyses of Chinese apps like WeChat and is currently a senior research fellow at the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab, echoes this view: “With the rise of TikTok and the Chinese apps going global, [people] are looking at the Chinese apps with a magnifying glass.” As a result, the risks are often exaggerated.

The actual differences between these apps and American apps are pretty small, Ruan says. In 2021, a technical review of TikTok, conducted by a colleague of Ruan’s, reported that it “did not observe [TikTok or its Chinese version Douyin] collecting contact lists, recording and sending photos, audio, videos or geolocation coordinates without user permission.” (WeChat, on the other hand, was found to surveil chats even in accounts not registered in China.)

“We have a tendency to securitize everything now,” Ruan says, “It’s important, but we have to be very careful when we apply a national security framework to data.” Concerns about what these apps could have been doing should be built on actual technical research instead of speculation and insinuation, she says.

Even so, journalists and those in policy circles should closely watch how these apps process their data, with particular attention to whether any user data is being transferred back to China.

As Xu tells me, there’s a legitimate national security concern about what happens to US user data once it is inside China’s borders. China has been developing a legal framework for protecting personal data, but it is focused on holding private companies accountable, not restricting what kind of data the government gets from companies or what it does with that data.

There are things companies like ByteDance, which owns TikTok, can do to address the concerns. For years, ByteDance has vowed to store and process US data only in the US, but there are still reports that company engineers in China are inappropriately accessing US user data. “There are a few things they have said they’re going to do, but they haven’t. I think that’s the problem,” Xu says. Enforcing that separation of user data—and using third-party audits to prove that it’s being done—would be a first step.

The political narrative around TikTok as a national security threat may drive away some users—if TikTok is no good for government employees, shouldn’t I be concerned and stay away from it too? But unless the US government implements a comprehensive ban on TikTok, I believe many more are going to keep using it.

The reality is, at the end of the day, very few American users are actively thinking about what country an app originates from. Many people will simply weigh the benefits and risks: are the goofy videos entertaining enough to justify the risks of exposing their data to companies and potentially state actors? 

Reports of concrete harm might tip the balance. But many people have continued to use American social media apps even after learning what those platforms are doing with their data. It’s natural that people weigh privacy and convenience in their own ways, Ruan says. Some people may ultimately decide they are willing to keep using TikTok even if their data may be exposed to the Chinese government. 

The question is whether Temu, Shein, and other Chinese apps that will inevitably try to break into the US market can consistently provide their American users with the convenience and entertainment that TikTok did. If they can, there will always be an open market, no matter how bad the geopolitical situation.

Do you think Temu will be treated like TikTok has been? Let me know your thoughts at zeyi@technologyreview.com.

Catch up with China

1. While we’re talking about TikTok, welcome to the wild world of TikTok Live, where people stream themselves pretending to sleep, role-playing robots, or doing other weird things for real-time cash gifts. (Insider $)

2. TikTok will expand its API access to more academic researchers, allowing them to analyze user profiles and activities. But those using the API have not found it helpful when it comes to understanding the app’s recommendation or content moderation systems. (Stanford Internet Observatory)

3. Inside TSMC’s new $40 billion Arizona factory project, employees are questioning whether the Taiwanese chip-making giant has made a good business decision. (New York Times $)

4. The new US congressional panel on China began hearings today. Its leader, Congressman Mike Gallagher, said he wanted to focus on how American companies invest and operate in China. (Financial Times $)

5. Citizen, the controversial crime-tracking app, is now trying to win over elderly Asian-Americans in the Bay Area, who have been traumatized by rising hate crimes. (MIT Technology Review)

6. Amid the ChatGPT craze, Shanghai’s local officials have pledged to attract more than 20,000 people with AI expertise and 500 AI-related companies to the city by 2025. (South China Morning Post $)

7. Last week, the same week that Beijing publicly called for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, Washington said it believes China is planning on sending artillery and drones to Russia. (Wall Street Journal $)

Lost in translation

In China, TikTok addiction is not limited to teens. According to Chinese publication Shenran Caijing, many elderly people are now addicted to watching livestreams on their phones and making impulsive purchases, and their children are worried.

On apps like WeChat and Douyin, livestream channels are selling fake antiques and dubious health products for surprisingly low prices. While young adults can easily spot the scam tactics, older and less tech-savvy livestream audiences are struggling to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. The scammers even tailor their marketing language to older viewers, promoting products that they claim will bless their children’s lives and asking them to keep the purchases a secret.

Some family members tried to point out the fraudulent practices in the comment section under those livestreams, only to have their accounts blocked by the channels immediately. Others tried to restrict their parents’ access to livestream platforms or digital wallets, but the parents soon registered new accounts. In the end, the more children intervene, the more likely their parents are to hide the purchases from them.

One more thing

Among Chinese tech companies, ByteDance has the reputation of having employees so loyal that they can’t help telling everyone who they work for. During a recent stand-up performance in Shanghai, a comedian made a joke about his mother being addicted to watching Douyin. Before he could finish, a ByteDance employee in the audience called out: “We thank you and your mother for approving our company’s product.” When the comedian responded that the joke was in no way an act of approval, the heckler continued to insist it means his mother relies on Douyin. How far would you go to defend your employer in a comedy show?

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