The debate over banning TikTok has been poisoned by anti-Asian rhetoric

Two things can be true at the same time. 

First: There are security concerns around TikTok, largely thanks to its parent company’s ties to China’s ruling communist party. Critics say that beyond the threat that the Chinese government could misuse TikTok user data, the app could be used to spread pro-China propaganda. 

And second: The discourse around those issues, particularly talk of banning the app entirely in the US, has been poisoned by a surge in anti-Asian rhetoric, making it difficult to have a national conversation around TikTok in good faith.

At the root of things is that the battle over TikTok’s future has become a proxy for America’s tensions with China. And just as those tensions have played into an overall rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination in the US, the conversation around TikTok has been surrounded by rhetoric that many Asian Americans see as xenophobic and outright racist. 

It’s important to note that this is all happening while anti-Asian rhetoric has been on the rise over the past few years, fueled in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic. While still in office, President Donald Trump referred to the virus as the “kung flu” and the “China virus.”

His comments correlated with an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, Manjusha Kulkarni, a cofounder of Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks hate crimes, said. The rhetoric around TikTok is adding to the problem, she added. And the perpetrators of those hate crimes aren’t stopping at people of Chinese descent; targets can include anyone who “looks” to be Asian.

“What matters is not your specific national origin, but whether you match the phenotype of what they see as the enemy,” Kulkarni said. “But it is that phenotype, the xenophobia combined that political leaders are willing to exploit and fuel.”

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