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China tech

China vows action if TikTok is forced to sell US operations

Internet users slam app's owner ByteDance for pursuing sale to Microsoft

Angry Chinese citizens have accused ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming of "kneeling" to the U.S. over the TikTok controversy.    © AP

HONG KONG -- Plans for Chinese streaming app TikTok to sell its U.S. operations amid regulatory headwinds there have elicited outrage in China, with Beijing threatening repercussions if the deal goes through and internet users condemning the app's owner as a "traitor."

ByteDance, TikTok's Beijing-based owner, said on Monday it is in talks with Microsoft for a possible sale, after President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app on national security grounds if it was not sold to an American company by Sept. 15.

In an editorial on Tuesday, the state-run China Daily said, "China will by no means accept the 'theft' of a Chinese technology company, and it has plenty of ways to respond if the administration carries out its planned smash and grab."

In a regular media briefing on Tuesday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accused Washington of "abusing its power" and using national security as a justification for clamping down on non-U.S. companies.

"This is outright bullying," Wang said. "We firmly opposed it."

ByteDance, meanwhile, has found itself the target of Chinese internet users' wrath.

"It's better to be banned [in the U.S.] than sold [to the U.S.]," one user wrote on Weibo, a Twitter-style Chinese social media platform. "Selling [TikTok] is equal to betraying your country," the post continued.

"Zhang Yiming has kneeled down [to the U.S.]," another Weibo user said, referring to ByteDance's founder. "The moment TikTok is sold, it is the time that I will abandon ByteDance's products."

Such posts suggest ByteDance is the latest victim of "techno-nationalism," a growing trend in China in which the public rallies around any company that stands up to foreign power -- and heaps criticism on those seen as giving in.

In response to the rising criticism, Zhang has hidden all the posts on his personal Weibo account. Previously, the founder shared details of his personal life and company updates on the platform and allowed other users to comment.

Trump announced on Friday that he would act to ban TikTok in America on national security grounds. The U.S. is the second-largest market for the app after India, which recently made good on its own threat to ban TikTok. To avoid another blow, the Chinese company has been in talks with Microsoft to sell its American service, with a deal expected to be completed in mid-September.

Public reaction to ByteDance stands in sharp contrast to its compatriot, Huawei Technologies, whose clash with the Trump administration garnered the company widespread support at home and helped boost its domestic smartphone sales.

Chinese media has also weighed in on the current issue, urging ByteDance to stand up to the U.S.

"It's hard for a startup to cope with such a situation given that the event is highly political," said government-linked newspaper 21st Century Business Herald in an editorial on Tuesday.

"But even so, [ByteDance] should defend itself using legal weapons," the editorial continued. "It is for the good of its own globalization as well as China Inc.'s 'go global strategy.'"

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