By Rajesh Roy and Shan Li
NEW DELHI -- India banned dozens of Chinese mobile apps,
including widely used TikTok and WeChat, after a border clash
between troops from the two countries left 20 Indian soldiers dead
New Delhi cited cybersecurity concerns in blocking the Chinese
apps from one of the largest and fastest-growing markets in the
world. A senior Indian government official said the ban was imposed
because the apps might have been used to harm India's defenses, as
well as to send a message to China.
Rising tensions since the clash between the Indian and Chinese
armies along their disputed border in the Himalayan mountains have
been accompanied in India with calls for the government to
retaliate against China.
"This is India's first salvo to China after the border clashes,
showing that India has a diverse range of retaliatory options," the
He said India's move might lead more countries to act similarly.
Regulators in Washington are already formally weighing whether
TikTok poses a national-security risk to the U.S.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, calling
the issue "a matter of very deep and immediate concern which
requires emergency measures," said in a written statement that it
had received multiple complaints about misuse of some mobile apps
for the theft and unauthorized, surreptitious transmission of
users' data to servers outside India.
"The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by
elements hostile to national security and defense of
India...ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of
India," the ministry said.
The banned mobile apps include Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.'s UC
Browser, a web browser, and Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s WeChat
messaging platform, which has more than 1.2 billion monthly active
users world-wide. UC Browser and WeChat have found audiences in
Asian countries such as India and Indonesia.
Video app TikTok, owned by Beijing-based Bytedance Ltd., is
popular with Indian youths and has dominated the social-media
Last month, India rankeds as the top country for new TikTok
users, accounting for 20% of the app's nearly 112 million downloads
around the world, according to Sensor Tower. The U.S. placed
second, at 9.3%.
Including TikTok, six of the top 10 most downloaded apps in
India were from Chinese tech companies, compared with four from
U.S. companies, according to a report published in April by Paulson
Institute's MacroPolo think tank. Chinese companies had just three
of the top 10 apps in India in 2015, according to the report.
Bytedance, Alibaba and Tencent couldn't immediately be reached
for comment. The Chinese government didn't immediately comment on
the Indian action.
Analysts said the ban on Chinese apps is part of a broader
effort by India to push back against Beijing. The two countries'
face-off at the Himalayan border has both sides looking for new
ways to gain leverage, especially India, which is weaker militarily
overall although more closely matched along the disputed
For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party
leads the government, banning the apps plays to popular domestic
demands to stand up to China, analysts said. It also underscores
that India's market, one of the biggest and most promising for
Chinese tech companies, can't be taken for granted, they said.
"The digital war between China and India is [heating up] because
there is a heavy propaganda element infused with internet-based
nationalism on both sides," said Sreeram Chaulia, dean at the
Jindal School of International Affairs in Haryana state, near
Mr. Chaulia said India would like to wean its citizens from
dependence on Chinese goods and services -- particularly online --
to prevent Beijing from dividing Indian society and weakening New
Delhi's resolve to counter China on the border dispute and broader
bilateral strategic competition.
"If China becomes indispensable on social media and online
consumption habits of Indians, it would soften public opinion in
India and confuse Indians as to whether or not China is a major
threat," he said.
As China's government becomes more combative abroad, other
countries' consumers and regulators have responded by putting
pressure on Chinese firms or spurning Chinese brands altogether --
particularly its technology competitors, which have been among the
most prominent Chinese companies doing business globally.
In India, outrage over the deaths of the 20 Indian soldiers in
the border clash added fuel to a boycott movement that has prompted
some Indian smartphone users to delete Chinese-made software.
Indian officials have said they would bar their state-run
telecommunications companies from purchasing equipment from Chinese
companies such as ZTE Corp. and Huawei Technologies Co. for future
4G mobile networks. Indian authorities have also privately warned
telecom operators against working with Chinese companies in the
rollout of new 5G networks. As recently as December, Huawei and ZTE
were welcomed to participate in India's 5G trials.
India has been the biggest untapped market for some of China's
quirkiest social-media companies, which had been signing up
hundreds of millions of consumers in the world's second-most
populous nation, looking to capture users who weren't hooked on to
U.S. apps such as Facebook and Twitter.
Research firm Sensor Tower estimates that the 59 banned apps
have accumulated 4.9 billion downloads from Apple Inc.'s India App
Store and Alphabet Inc.'s Google Play since January 2014, including
750 million so far this year. Of the top 25 most downloaded apps on
India's App Store and Google Play since April, eight were from
Chinese content-sharing apps such as Bytedance's Helo -- also
now banned -- and TikTok have penetrated deep into the Indian
market, where most of the country's 1.3 billion people are getting
online for the first time using low-cost smartphones and dirt-cheap
TikTok is bigger in India than anywhere else outside of China,
owing to the South Asian nation's massive population and legions of
young and largely unemployed fans. The app was downloaded close to
650 million times since January 2018 on the App Store and Google
Play, according to Sensor Tower. Young people are often found in
parks and parking lots shooting 15-second videos that mimic the
song-and-dance-infused movies of Bollywood, the country's film
India has been the focus for years of both U.S. and Chinese tech
companies, who viewed the country as a huge potential market. The
chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter have all visited
India and met Mr. Modi in person, with their platforms building out
"India first" features tailored to the country's local
Google, for example, has introduced a feature in its popular
Maps app for travelers riding rickshaws or taxis in India, which
prompts the phone to buzz if users deviate too much from the
original route. Last month, Facebook rolled out a new safety
function aimed at helping women protect their photos and personal
Tencent and Alibaba have also been prolific investors in Indian
tech startups, especially as Chinese startups hesitate about going
public amid a trade war with the U.S. and slowing economic growth
To sustain momentum in India, Bytedance had invested heavily and
backed government initiatives to raise TikTok's profile. It had
pledged to invest $1 billion in India over the next few years
through expansion and construction of a data center. It sponsored
"Bala," a Bollywood romantic comedy featuring protagonists who make
The investment came after an Indian court blocked TikTok from
app stores in April 2019 after ruling that the app could expose
children to pornography, sexual predators and cyberbullying. The
court later reversed its decision after TikTok appealed.
The ban, which lasted less than two weeks, cost the app more
than 15 million downloads in India, according to Sensor Tower.
Those losses, combined with a similar ban in Indonesia in 2018 over
inappropriate content, spurred Bytedance last year to start
tailoring in earnest its content policies to individual markets,
according to a person familiar with the matter.
The company was wary of further bans in India, which it views as
a significant growth market, the person said. Bytedance also owns
other popular apps in India, including the social-media app Helo
and a music-streaming app called Resso.
TikTok India's public-policy director, Nitin Saluja, said in an
interview last year that "there is an enabling environment for any
company to have an India-first approach" and that Bytedance wanted
to further invest in the country.
India has been a battleground for the Trump administration's
effort to get allies to shun Chinese technology, especially
cellular equipment from Huawei, over what the White House says are
Officials in the U.S. and allied countries have said China's
authoritarian government could order Huawei to potentially spy on
or disrupt communications, The Wall Street Journal reported last
U.S. regulators are weighing whether TikTok poses a
national-security risk because it is owned by China-based
Bytedance. Bytedance's 2017 acquisition of the startup Musical.ly,
a lip-synching app that had won a large following among U.S.
teenagers, is under review by the Committee on Foreign Investment
in the United States for potential national-security risks.
Bytedance shut Musical.ly after merging it with TikTok in 2018 -- a
move crucial to its success in the U.S. because of Musical.ly's use
there. Several U.S. lawmakers have accused the company of censoring
content at Beijing's behest -- which Bytedance has denied.
In March, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, proposed
a bill to ban federal employees from using TikTok on their
government-issued phones as concerns increase about Chinese tech
firms sharing user data with Beijing. Several U.S. agencies,
including the State Department and the Department of Homeland
Security, have already barred employees from using the app.
--Stu Woo contributed to this article.
Write to Rajesh Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org and Shan Li at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 29, 2020 19:46 ET (23:46 GMT)
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