Amid deepening tensions with China in the wake of clashes on their disputed Himalayan border, India on Monday banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, wielding a form of punishment foreign tech firms operating in China have long been accustomed to.
India’s Ministry of Information Technology said it banned the apps for being engaged in activities “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.” The ministry said it had received numerous complaints alleging some of the apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner” to servers outside India.
TikTok said in a statement on June 30 that it has been “invited to meet with concerned government stakeholders” about the ban. The short-video company also said that it complies with privacy and security requirements in current India law—the country is still the process of drafting a data privacy law—and has never shared any India user information with foreign governments, including Beijing.
While the ministry cited national security for its decision, rising hostility to China appears to be the real motivation for such a blanket move.
Starting in early May, thousands of Chinese and Indian troops have been entangled in a standoff in India’s northern Ladakh region, with soldiers engaging in skirmishes as each side accuses the other of trespassing areas in dispute between the countries. Many also blame China for India’s economic suffering from the coronavirus, as the first clusters of patients surfaced in the mainland.
Following those developments, many in India called for boycotts of Chinese goods, such as the smartphones that dominate the Indian market. Reflecting that sentiment, a tool that claimed it could help users delete their Chinese apps was downloaded millions of times in India before it was taken down by Google. India has also curbed foreign investment from neighboring countries, a move seen as primarily intended to stop Chinese companies from taking over Indian entities—and states have put the brakes on major new manufacturing projects funded by China.
The ban has come as a shock to many in China who have decried India’s “ultra-nationalism“—even though what India is doing mimics tactics used by Beijing for more than a decade to block foreign, and especially American, tech companies. China has banned most major US internet companies, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, from offering their services in China—resulting in the creation of its own distinct version of the internet. More recently, it’s forced companies like video-conferencing platform Zoom and Apple to censor China-based users or apps, citing the violation of local laws by the companies or the need to defend its “cyber sovereignty,” a concept coined by Beijing as a challenge to established internet governance rules favoring an open internet. Now, as Chinese tech firms seek to go global themselves, they too are running into political friction.
India’s ban will likely not immediately have a big impact on Indian internet users who for the most part rely on US apps such as WhatsApp for instant messaging (rather than China’s WeChat), and Facebook. And the millions of young users who already have TikTok on their phones should still be able to use it.
But it could certainly put a stop to the app’s expansion in the country, its biggest market outside China. On Tuesday, TikTok and other apps appeared to no longer be available for download on Google Play and Apple’s app stores.
Compared with a previous ban on TikTok last year, Anand Prasanna, a managing partner at Mumbai-based tech investment firm Iron Pillar, expects the current ban will be “much more serious” and longer lasting, or even permanent. The freeze may also give India’s own tech firms a chance to improve and sell their own products.
“For Indian investors and startups, this is good news as there is less competition to deal with for India apps,” Prasanna told Quartz.
In the past decade, Chinese tech giants such as WeChat owner Tencent, Alibaba, and ByteDance, which owns TikTok, have flourished both domestically and overseas partly thanks to Beijing’s banning of foreign tech rivals.
“Similar to China, India has strong capacity to develop apps and softwares, as well as boasting a huge domestic market. Thus it can totally afford to copy the playbook of Beijing to kick out Chinese companies citing the need to protect domestic players or other reasons, as Indian companies have the ability to replace their Chinese rivals,” said Shen Meng, a director at boutique Beijing investment bank Chanson & Co.
The ban is probably just as well for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, whose page on the now blacklisted social media platform Weibo—which he joined as a gesture of friendship in 2015—is receiving a barrage of angry messages from Chinese internet users over the decision.