TikTok in India is huge: between 120 million and 200 million users, it’s difficult to know the exact figure. This social network, which offers small videos that are easy to share, generally about fifteen seconds, has literally exploded in the last three years in this India of one billion 300 million inhabitants. The country alone accounts for a third of TikTok’s downloads worldwide, outside of China. TikTok is available in 14 regional languages in India. And has generated the appearance of a whole series of stars of the social network. These are unknown names here, but they are now stars in India: Riyaz Ali, Faisal Shaikh, Arishfa Kahn, all have between 25 and 40 million subscribers each!
So it’s a whole business that finds itself threatened. Or hope for a social elevator. As in all countries, TikTok is very popular with young people: more than 40% of Indian subscribers are between 16 and 24 years old. And the app has helped make women’s rights advocacy and the cause of the LGBT community more visible in India. So the closure of the social network, which is no longer available on online stores there, inevitably creates a stir.
The ban is part of a series of reprisals against China. Monday, June 29, the nationalist government of Narendra Modi announced the blocking of 59 Chinese mobile applications. TikTok is the most iconic. But there is also WeChat (a bit like the Chinese WhatsApp), Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter) or the online game Clash of Kings. Officially, India justifies this decision on the grounds that these applications represent “a threat to the integrity of the country, the security of the state and public order”. And the Indian government is already threatening a new round of sanctions, this time against the Chinese telecoms giants, Huawei and ZTE, which could be excluded from the tender on the 5G network.
This is in fact trade retaliation, two weeks after the sharp border incident between the two countries. It will be remembered that the melee clashes, unprecedented in 45 years, had opposed Chinese and Indian soldiers. 20 dead on the Indian side and an unknown number of victims on the Chinese side. Rather than risk an armed conflict, India chooses to strike at the wallet, via this digital economy which is today one of the spearheads of China.
China is a bit taken at its own game in this case in the sense that it was the first to make digital protectionism, by closing its doors to the American giants of Silicon Valley, the Facebook, You Tube, Twitter, etc. It’s now China’s turn to be rebuffed. And for these big Chinese companies, this is very bad news: the Indian market is essential. This is their first line of development, given its size. This episode also shows how conflicts between states are increasingly tipping over in the field of digital competition.