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TikTok’s Complex Ties to China

“By accessing or using our Services, you confirm that you can form a binding contract with TikTok, and that you agree to comply with them.” No one ever reads the terms of service when signing up for something. However, the “makeup tutorial” TikTok by Feroza Aziz has recently gone viral. Briefly banned and now with millions of views, this video has called into question the TikTok regulations. Disguised as a makeup tutorial to avoid TikTok’s censorship, Aziz describes the situation in China of Uyghur Muslims, or as she says, a government’s genocide. 

Since 2017, the Chinese government ­— under President Xi Jinping — has been detaining Uyghurs and Muslims from other ethnic groups in what are formally called vocational training and education centers designed to counter “religious extremism” and “terror,” according to Chinese legislative documents. 

Aziz’s post threatened the strict censorship laws the Chinese government enforces on the press to hide information about the camps. By removing her video, which did not violate any of the company’s community guidelines, TikTok appeared to be in support of China’s actions. Although TikTok summed this up to human error sparked by an earlier video on her account, Aziz responded on Twitter, saying, “Do I believe they took it away because of an unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? No.” TikTok, which Business Insider reports has hit 1.5 billion downloads, is owned by the Chinese unicorn Bytedance. Before going under fire, Bytedance followed regulations in accordance with Chinese politics. Any content addressing the killings in Tiananmen Square, Taiwan’s independence, or resistance to the re-education camps was banned. Knowledge of these practices gave rise to calls across social media to boycott TikTok. Now, TikTok insists that they have reformed their system, claiming “The old guidelines in question are outdated and no longer in use.” 

However, speculation continues regarding whether TikTok is still operating on separate terms and conditions. This would be a serious impairment in the effort to close China’s re-education camps and raise much-needed global awareness. Even if accounts aren’t disabled, TikTok still has control over what goes on the explore page and what is “trending.” This is a more subtle way the company censors what content we see, and what is left unanswered.