WECHAT AND TIKTOK have both secured stays of execution of their US bans: ByteDance’s TikTok by dint of an alliance with Oracle and Walmart that US President Donald Trump has ‘blessed in concept’, whatever that means (probably that it is OK because his friend and Oracle boss Larry Ellison has set it up, even if it does not meet the president’s order that TikTok’s US business be divested to US owners); Tencent’s WeChat thanks to a federal judge in San Francisco issuing a preliminary injunction blocking the Trump’s executive order to shut the app down in the United States.
The tick-tock on TikTok will continue as the deal is yet to be finalised. However, what caught this Bystander’s eye in the WeChat ruling was Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler’s comments in her written remarks that while the general evidence about the threat to national security related to China regarding technology and mobile technology — the heart of the administration’s argument for the ban — is considerable, the specific evidence about WeChat is modest.
Why this caught this Bystander’s eye was last week’s instructions from President Xi Jinping to the United Work Front Department about the role — and duty — of the private sector and a parallel opinion issued by the Party ahead of the United Front’s work conference on the private sector. The gist of both was the need for tighter Party control over private enterprises and entrepreneurs to focus them on national goals and to create a cadre of within the private sector that is ‘reliable and useful at critical moments’.
This will confirm all the suspicions outside the country that the line between the private and public sectors is becoming ever more blurred and that private ownership of firms does not mean independence from the interests of the state or Party. For Chinese firms operating globally, existing distrust will intensify. The new National Intelligence Law already makes it nigh impossible for them (or any other Chinese firm) to rebuff authorities’ requests that they support national intelligence work.
The new guidance to the private sector will, if anything, widen the scope of how it will be expected to put the national interest ahead of its own. In July, Xi told a symposium for entrepreneurs:
First, I hope everyone will enhance their patriotism. Enterprise marketing knows no borders, and entrepreneurs have a motherland. Excellent entrepreneurs must have a lofty sense of mission and a strong sense of responsibility for the country and the nation, closely integrate the development of the enterprise with the prosperity of the country, the prosperity of the nation, and the happiness of the people, and take the initiative to bear and share the worries for the country.
It remains to be seen how this will play out in practice. In particular, how far will supporting national goals go beyond playing a part in economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and meeting national security obligations? Will it mean playing a directed role in the development of indigenous next-generation technologies and industries that will be needed in a more decoupled world?
Entrepreneurs and firms that understand and adhere to the Party line will likely see significant benefits for their businesses domestically. Foreign firms operating in China will have to find an accommodation with that, even if they are granted some laxity in demonstrating the patriotism that will be expected of indigenous firms. That said, the flip side of a level playing field regardless of a company’s origin is that all firms in China are treated equally.
Next year’s introduction of the 14th Five-Year Plan will provide some clarity. But meeting the plan’s goal of delivering ‘a well-off society‘ will require the innovation of the private sector to be harnessed but not shackled, never an easy balance for industrial policymakers to strike.