Indian app users, influencers baffled, hurt by ban of China’s TikTok, WeChat

By Huang Lanlan – Global Times

The Indian government’s sudden decision to ban 59 apps from China, including the widely used TikTok and WeChat, has caught millions of users across India by surprise, depriving them of one of this year’s most popular tools for recreation and education, and even incurring economic losses to those who make a living on the platforms.

As TikTok’s largest overseas market, India had an estimated user base of over 110 million, many of whom, as local TikTok star Geet described, regarded the platform as “amazing” for it providing an opportunity for them to”live out [their] dreams.”

Indian social worker Geet was one of many popular influencers on TikTok before the government-imposed ban, uploading 10-15 short videos to her three active accounts every day, covering topics such as English learning and relationships, with a total of 11.3 million followers since she first joined the platform in February 2019.

Although the ban came soon after the China-India boarder clash in June, it came as “a complete shock” to influencers and general users, she said.

“I have had many followers ask me how can they continue learning English and who should they look to for motivation,” Geet told the Global Times. Large numbers of Geet’s followers couldn’t control their emotions, with some telling her through comments and messages that they couldn’t stop crying and felt depressed because of the ban, Geet said.

“Some users have said that, in these uncertain times, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, TikTok was their only solace, and the one thing that brought them joy,” she said.

On Twitter, TikTok users from India shared their disappointment after the ban came into effect on Monday, with some suggesting that VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) could be used to access the Indian government-blocked apps.

Following the ban’s implementation, mainstream media in India have tried to express that it is the talent of the individuals rather than the platform that made creators popular, suggesting that influencers could easily switch to other video platforms. However, this particular Chinese app may be hard to replace, according to some observers.

TikTok users love using the app for its vibrant global community. Chingari, a similar short-video app developed in India which has been suggested as a possible replacement, is comparably boring and unimaginative, commented media person Mahim Pratap Singh. “Excellence can’t be built by banning the competition,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

What’s more, more international platforms, like Instagram and YouTube, will find it difficult to replace TikTok in the Indian market. Geet said many of her followers have indicated they don’t use other platforms. “Perhaps they do not have the data on their phones to watch long form videos or maybe, unlike TikTok, some apps are not available in their regional languages,” she explained.

TikTok has done well in localizing its services in India. It is available in 14 of India’s regional languages, said Nikhil Gandhi, Head of TikTokIndia. “[It has attracted] hundreds of millions of users, artists, storytellers, educators, and performers…, many of whom are first-time internet users,” Gandhi told Indian business news site in June.

The policy of banning Chinese apps brings Indian users financial risks. TikTok, for instance, had many users in rural India who had got a powerful multimedia platform and were also earning money [through it], said an Indian tech policy expert.

The ban also hurts thousands of Indian traders dependent on Chinese suppliers, who may not be able to connect with Chinese suppliers easily because India has also blocked WeChat, he told the Global Times on Thursday.

Chinese textile machine exporter Ellen Fan, with 90 percent of her clients being Indian, said her WeChat account was flooded with messages once the ban was announced. She had many Indian clients text her their email addresses and phone numbers, expressing their discontentment with the government’s ban for bringing them inconvenience when contacting their Chinese business partners.

Fan began using WeChat to communicate with her Indian clients for the last three years, and is now worried about uncertainty in her business without the ability to use the instant messaging app.

Fan told the Global Times that WeChat still worked in India as of Thursday. Indian netizens found some of the banned 59 apps are still available in their country. However, it is unclear how the Indian government will proceed with the ban at a technical level, according to technology news site ZDNet on Monday.

“After WeChat is totally banned, maybe we will have to use traditional, time-consuming ways to stay in contact with each other, like phone calls and emails,” Fan sighed.

Many Chinese apps had become popular among Indian users in recent years. In fact, Chinese-developed apps took up half of the top 10 most downloaded apps in India in 2019. On that list, TikTok ranked first with over 300 million downloads, according to statistics from app intelligence company Sensor Tower.

Nonetheless, given the border tensions and the nationalist sentiment, it may not be easy for the Indian government to roll back the ban, said New Delhi-based policy consultant and technology writer Prasanto K Roy.

“It [lifting the ban] can be possible if ByteDance and other executives are able to convince the government about data security – perhaps by sharing source code of the apps or other means, and if the India-Chinese border situation improves,” Roy told the Global Times on Thursday.

ByteDance will hold discussions with Indian officials this week and seek detailed clarifications on the ban, two informed sources told Reuters. The company also plans to send a written response to the government explaining its stance, one source said to Reuters on Wednesday.

“I really hope that the issues that need to be clarified or rectified are addressed, and that TikTok’s ban in India will be removed soon,” Geet told the Global Times.

India’s app ban could have possibly violated the World Trade Organization’s rules and commitments, China’s Ministry of Commerce spokesperson Gao Feng said on Thursday.

We hope that India can immediately correct its discriminatory practices against China and Chinese enterprises, Gao added.