In the face of escalating border tensions with China, India banned short-video making app TikTok and 58 other apps owned by Chinese companies citing “security concerns” on Monday, June 29.
This list of apps includes social networks like TikTok, Vigo Video and Likee, instant messaging platform WeChat, affordable fashion website Shein, web browser UC Browser, and mapping service Baidu Maps – most of which are household names in India.
India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a statement that these apps were pulled for “stealing” user data and transferring it to servers located outside India.
“The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures,” reads the statement.
In response, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Beijing was “strongly concerned” about the new order, and that the move would go against “India’s interests.”
The ban comes about two weeks after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a border skirmish between India and China, both nuclear-armed, at their Himalayan border. China has remained silent on whether they had any casualties.
The violence led to angry Indians calling for a boycott of all Chinese products, which the government has appeared to take a step further with its decision to ban apps.
The banned apps haven’t been deleted directly from phones, but are no longer available on the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store. Nikhil Gandhi, the head of TikTok in India, issued a statement promising that they “continue to comply with all data privacy and security requirements under Indian law, and has not shared any information of our users in India with any foreign government, including the Chinese government.”
TikTok has more than 200 million active users in India, and is one of the ten most-downloaded apps in the country. The country is also one of the biggest markets for TikTok, accounting for 44 percent of its market with more than 323 billion downloads in 2019.
With more than half a billion internet users, India is the second-largest market for global apps, seeing almost 19 billion downloads in 2019. However, Indian users contribute only 0.3 percent towards consumer spending on these apps, leading experts to point out that this ban probably won’t dent the Chinese economy the way it intends to.
The short video making app that thrives on trends and challenges has a complicated history in India. Not only was the app banned for an interim period last year for “promoting nudity” and “obscenity”, its users are regularly subjected to ridicule.
The app emerged as an inextricable part of India’s social media culture, its most popular users hailing from smaller cities and rural areas. These users migrated to TikTok for its ease of use, visual elements and vernacular language options.
“My heart sank when I heard that TikTok was banned,” Geet, a TikTok user known as The Official Geet on the platform, told VICE News. Geet said she only goes by one name so her followers can focus on her motivational content and avoid asking questions about her caste or socio-economic background.
Geet, who has more than 6 million followers on TikTok, uses the platform to inspire other Indians. She is paralysed waist-down and said TikTok has empowered her despite her disability.
“Through TikTok, I could give motivational speeches and teach English to more than one million slum residents through 15-second videos. I have had so many people come up to me and say my videos and story helped boost their confidence or helped them in dark phases of their life,” she said.
Geet did a live session about the TikTok ban on the platform after it was announced, and right before the app started working. “People began opening up about how much this platform helped them during the lockdown. The ban has left them worried about their mental health and is giving them suicidal thoughts,” she said.
TikTok has been linked to several suicide and murder cases over the last few years, with many young Indians dying by suicide for not getting enough views or likes.
On the flip side, TikTok has emerged as a form of mental health support, especially during India’s stringent lockdown, which pushed the app to evolve into an acceptable substitute for a social life.
“Followers will experience withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety about what else may be snatched away, anger, that a ‘super’ power can take away their source of joy and entertainment, repeatedly checking their phone to see if TikTok has magically started working and not knowing what to do with their free time,” Dr. Prerna Kohli, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist told VICE News through email.
Kohli also pointed out that since many TikTok users depended on the app as a source of income, the ban would deepen their financial hardships in an age of increasing job losses and pay cuts. This could potentially plummet some users into mental health crises.
“I come from a low-income family and growing up, we couldn’t afford any luxuries,” Bhargav Chippada, a TikTok influencer from the South Indian city of Visakhapatnam with more than 4 million followers who goes by the name Fun Bucket Bhargav told VICE in an article released in October 2019. “But now that I am earning enough [as a TikTok influencer], I’ve been able to buy a bike for my father, some gold jewellery for my mother and even an office space for one of my relatives.”
But not everyone is disappointed by the ban. The Indian government’s ban was hailed by homegrown alternative apps as a push towards a much-needed transition.
Apps like Roposo, ShareChat and Bolo Indya all claimed they will benefit from the ban on their biggest rivals.
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