(*With apologies to John Le Carre) A bill to expel the massively popular TikTok from the United States unless it cuts its ties to its Chinese owner, ByteDance, has gained unprecedented political momentum. Shrill arguments in favor of the legislation trumpet a need for national security. Foreign ownership of this social media site, they exclaim, is an urgent threat. However, the national security claim obfuscates the real reason behind the campaign against TikTok. A brief historical review of how the US has deployed foreign ownership strictures in communications helps clarify the situation.

The 1934 Communications Act carried over and cemented provisions in place to cover broadcast media, telecommunications and aeronautical media licensees.[1] Foreigners were barred from owning more than a minority interest 25% – in US radio licensees.[2]  These strictures have endured, though with a notorious exception. 

This departure came under Republican President Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The beneficiary was Rupert Murdoch. In 1985, the FCC allowed Murdoch – on the verge of exchanging Australian for US citizenship – and his Australian News Corporation to purchase seven large US broadcast stations.[3]

Murdoch’s track-record was already plain. He had attacked journalists’ and printers’ unions and -infamously – intervened strongly in his newspaper’s supposedly independent editorial decisions to help ensure that Labor Party Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was not re-elected in 1975.[4] His newspapers had contributed mightily to the rise of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, actively pushing both journalism and politics to the right. And his representation before the FCC was deceptive.[5] Nevertheless, citing a need for “competition,” Reagan’s FCC granted Murdoch a right to enter US major-market broadcasting. This paved the way for him to establish the Fox Broadcasting Network (1986) and, with the aid of the vicious right-winger Roger Ailes, to roll out Fox News a decade later. In 1995, its original decision under challenge from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Murdoch meanwhile having covertly built up his stake in these broadcast properties to 99 percent, a now-Democratic FCC reaffirmed its earlier decision and permitted him to continue owning them.[6] Murdoch is our kind of villain.

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The free flow of information was, as IO has discussed, the guiding doctrine of US international communications policy from the 1940s – the era of news agencies and movies – to the late 2010s and internet-enabled transnational data flows.[1] 

In the face of growing restrictions placed on cross-border data flows by numerous other countries, however, the Biden Administration thereafter reduced the purchase of this foundational policy. Free flow continued to guide the US agenda, but for digital trade blocs:  alliances between the US and specific groups of other countries. The US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement and the US-Japan trade pact were leading examples; and the US sought to expand on these, notably through negotiations on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).

While still underlining its ostensible commitment to free cross-border flows in general, in February 2024, the Administration nevertheless moved to hedge this through an Executive Order portending restrictions on access to Americans’ “bulk-sensitive data” by “countries of concern.”[2] If the policy context had come to seem ambiguous in early 2024, however, then this was mostly because, paradoxically, in late October 2023 it had grown startlingly clear. This was when the United States Trade Representative (USTR) suddenly withdrew US support for free cross-border data flow provisions in both the ongoing IPEF and World Trade Organization negotiations – upending the prior US position.[3]

How could this happen? The US had been compelled to attenuate its longstanding free flow policy by virtue of its reduced global power or, put differently, because other countries had succeeded in mandating local storage of data and/or in imposing restrictions on international data flows. In response, the US had “shrunk” its policy to apply to digital trade blocs of allied countries – still collectively accounting for a large share of the global economy.  With the late October action, however, the Trade Representative sabotaged the very policy that the US had hitherto done its utmost to preserve, albeit with a reduced footprint. Why?

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While I was in Korea last month, I visited a small memorial hall that honors the life of a young garment worker named Chun Tae-il who, in protest, set himself on fire on 13 November 1970 as he cried, “Observe the labor law! We are not machines!”[1] His body was engulfed in flames in the middle of the Pyeonghwa market in Dongdaemun, Seoul – the center of the country’s textile and garment district in the 1970s. He was 22.

When he was 18 years old, Chun Tae-il began to work as an apprentice at a sewing factory and became a tailor. He witnessed abhorrent working conditions – where young female workers between 12 and 15 years old worked more than 16 hours a day in rooms filled with fabrics and sewing machines with little ventilation or light.[2] The work rooms were small, often with lofts built in to maximize space, and ceilings so low the workers couldn’t stand upright.

In an effort to improve the lives of workers, he formed an organization called 바보회, the Society of Fools with 10 like-minded tailors.[3] They called themselves fools because workers hadn’t exercised their rights despite the Labor Standard Act. They studied labor law, educated themselves and their fellow workers, and surveyed the conditions of the sweatshops – working hours, occupational diseases, holiday work, and wages – collecting actual evidence of the daily gruesome reality of the garment workers.[4] Chun thought that providing this evidence would draw attention to and convince the media and the Ministry of Employment and Labor of the plight of workers. However, the labor law was only on paper and completely unenforced.

While there was no response from the Ministry, a month before Chun’s death in 1970, Kyonghyang newspaper ran a story titled “골방서 하루 16時間 노동”(“Working 16 hours a day in an attic”) as a main story for the paper’s Society Section.[5] At that time, Kyonghyang was owned by Shinjin Motor Company which was tied to Park Chung Hee’s military regime.[6] Thus, this was a defiant act by media workers since the story was a direct attack on the regime that was at that time cracking down on labor movements.[7] After publishing the story, the editors of the newspaper were called into the Ministry of Culture and Public Information and the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and admonished to stop running stories about labor.[8]

Despite Chun’s ceaseless pleas to the Ministry and the media, there was little hint of any change. Chun’s final act was the ultimate public protest and cry for justice; it helped initiate the radical Korean labor movement that developed in the coming years, and spurred a broader alliance among workers, students, and intellectuals that converged in labor uprisings and the broader democracy movement in the 1980s.[9]

Today, the story of Chun Tae-il may seem like part of a bygone era as South Korea ranks as the fourth largest economy in Asia and the 13th largest economy in the world. Instead of sewing machines and sweatshops, the country is known now for mobile phones, semiconductors, 5G, automobiles, and ships and is an exporter of globally popular K-pop culture and entertainment.

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After China’s leaders opened their country to foreign investment in the early 1990s, US transnational companies flooded in searching for cheap labor and new markets.  Foreign direct investment [FDI] in Chinese plants and factories, as well as portfolio investment in Chinese corporate shares, skyrocketed.[1]  Established in tax-haven jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands, shell companies – “special purpose entities” – smoothed the way for foreign venture capital, hedge funds, and other speculative interests to take advantage of the boom.

For thirty years, US manufacturing and finance capital profited mightily from these arrangements.[2]  By setting conditions on foreign investment and through other measures, meanwhile, China’s strong state strengthened and expanded its own economy. At the same time, continuing a trend which began during the late 1970s and 1980s, US working-class communities experienced prolonged devastation as high-wage jobs were relocated, exported, or simply eliminated. Anger and deepening political disaffection were the results. 

Drawing opportunistically on this anger, the unexpected presidency of Donald Trump produced a sea-change in US-China relations. Though there’s plenty of informal everyday racism in the United States, to bring it to bear on political-economic objectives requires organizational work. To rationalize his “America First” economic policy toward China, Trump turned to anti-Chinese racism, for example by referring to Covid as the “Chinese virus” and the “Wuhan virus.”[3]

The Biden administration heightened the stand-off by supplementing Trump’s tariffs with export controls on state-of-the-art semiconductor technologies, AI, and quantum computing – citing both economic and national security.[4]  Democrats and Republicans now combined a stepped-up racism with attacks on purported Chinese “subversion.” Laws restricting Chinese nationals from buying property were enacted by fifteen US states, with other such laws pending in twenty others.  Academic scientists at US universities of Chinese descent experienced racial profiling and harassment, and many did not feel safe in their jobs; Chinese graduate students were barred from academic laboratories in Florida.[5] Violence inflicted upon Asian Americans rose during the Covid 19 pandemic, and persisted at a high level.[6]

China’s Xi Jinping reciprocated by according new emphasis to nationalistic rhetoric and with defiant economic policies toward the U.S.[7] A dominant political faction in the US then took US aggression up a notch. 

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