US to widen action against Chinese tech groups beyond TikTok

The Trump administration has vowed to “take action” in a matter of days against Chinese software companies that it perceives as a risk to security, in a sign that Washington is set to broaden its offensive beyond the video-sharing app TikTok.

ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, is racing to save the app’s US operations with a plea to the administration to allow it to sell the unit to Microsoft.

Comments from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo on Sunday suggested additional action against a wider range of Chinese technology companies would follow.

“These Chinese software companies doing business in the United States, whether it’s TikTok or WeChat — there are countless more . . . are feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist party, their national security apparatus,” Mr Pompeo told Fox News. 

“President Trump has said ‘enough’ and we’re going to fix it and so he will take action in the coming days with respect to a broad array of national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist party.” 

Mike Pompeo © Kay Nietfeld/dpa

Mr Pompeo did not expand on the scope of the proposed action, however. The National Security Council declined to offer a clarification.

Speaking about TikTok specifically, Mr Pompeo said that Mr Trump was “closing in on a solution”. 

The US has claimed that TikTok’s ownership by ByteDance means the data of American citizens can be used by the Chinese government. Mr Trump told reporters on Friday that he intended to ban TikTok from the US.

In a deal with Microsoft that was under discussion before Mr Trump’s intervention, 1,500 TikTok staff, intellectual property and technology would move to the US technology giant and ByteDance would retain no interest in the US TikTok business. 

Steven Mnuchin, US Treasury secretary, said on Sunday that TikTok could not continue to be owned by ByteDance and operate in the US. Mr Mnuchin chairs the government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, or Cfius, which is reviewing ByteDance’s acquisition of Music.ly — the precursor to TikTok — on national security grounds.

“The president can either force a sale or the president can block the app . . . and I’m not going to comment on my specific discussions with the president, but everybody agrees it can’t exist as it does,” Mr Mnuchin said.

Asked whether a potential sale of TikTok to a US-based company such as Microsoft would be enough to protect American users’ data, Mr Pompeo said Mr Trump would “make sure that everything we have done drives us as close to zero risk for the American people”.

Top Republican senators have already indicated that a potential sale to a US company would not be enough to assuage their security concerns.

Marco Rubio, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, told the Financial Times last week that, even in the event of a sale, TikTok needed to answer questions on where its data was stored and how it would be protected.