India continues to blunt China's ambitious Belt and Road initiative but does it have the resources to replace popular Chinese apps like TikTok and Helo?

by Saibal Dasgupta

The Indian government’s decision to ban 59 Chinese mobile applications, including the popular TikTok, WeChat and Helo, will have a snowballing effect on Beijing’s international soft power push under the “Digital Silk Road” programme. Though countries with active user base of Chinese apps may not immediately follow suit, the Indian action—an apparent retaliation to the border face-off in Ladakh—will initiate the process of rethinking about their implication in terms of national security, analysts say. "I won’t be surprised if what India has done will result in a broader questioning about the Chinese apps. Something similar might happen elsewhere as more broad-based concerns are being articulated in other countries,” Ashok Kantha, former Indian ambassador to China and director at the Institute of Chinese Studies, says. One of the ironies of Digital Silk Road is China’s attempts to take advantage of free media regulations in democratic nations while blocking foreign apps and websites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Indian websites, including newspaper sites, are also banned in China.

India managed to stir a debate against the Belt and Road Initiative—President Xi Jinping’s pet programme to enhance worldwide influence through connectivity infrastructure—by raising objections since 2017 and refusing China’s request to launch it in the country. This led to Malaysia cancelling and later restructuring a major Chinese-backed rail project and more countries demanding price discounts from Chinese companies on infrastructure projects. “We took a leadership position by thinking ahead of the curve. Many of India’s concerns have bec­ome mainstream concerns and perceptions about the BRI have since in the past three years,” Kantha says.

Chinese apps are usually bundled with China-made mobile phones. In India, they control the bulk of the market. The ban on these apps will seriously effect their sales and open new market segments for Samsung and other brands bes­ides some low-end phones made in India, which has the largest number of users of the short-video platform, TikTok, at 120 million. Followed by US at nearly 40 million, Turkey at 28 million, Russia 24 million, Mexico 20 million, Brazil 18 million and Pakistan 12 million.

WeChat, akin to WhatsApp, has not made much of an impact in India but it has a huge potential. WeChat Pay, the transaction platform within the social media app, is available in 40 countries and in 12 different currencies other than the Chinese Yuan. “Chinese ban on Google, Facebook and other apps created an ecosystem that led to the creation of many successful Chinese apps. This could be an opportunity for development of apps in India,” Kunal Sinha, a consumer and media expert in Mumbai, who spent many years in Shanghai, says. On the other hand, Indian technology start-ups are financed with Chinese money, he points out. “Developing new apps in India would require alternative sources of funds,” Sinha says.

This is an opportunity for Indian companies to look at non-tech sectors, and make the most of the massive market that has been suddenly made available by the ban on Chinese apps. The question is whether they will move quickly. Issuing the ban, the government said the applications are engaged in activities “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”.

Chinese apps like TikTok assert that they do not share Indian data with any foreign government, including China, but there are widespread concerns about cybersecurity. A worrying aspect is the large-scale use of Chinese branded mobile phones with their apps by security personal in border/sensitive areas. Short video apps make certain situations and regions particularly vulnerable.

Beyond India, worried about security threats emanating from Chinese apps are widely felt in Europe, the US, Australia and parts of Asia. Several countries are looking closely at China’s telecom equipment exports out of fear they may contain malware and spy software.

TikTok has proved to be extremely popular with young Indians eager to exp­ress their creativity through short videos, and managed to create a positive view of China. The ban has created a vacuum that cannot be immediately met by YouTube operating at a different level.

Serious Questions

The ban has raised questions about the inability of Indian companies to come up with equally popular apps and digital platforms and capture even one-fourth of the Indian market, instead of allowing Chinese and American companies to control almost all of it. The ability of the ministry of information technology to think long-term and encourage companies to play an important role is being questioned too.

For instance, the ministry knew all along that the banned apps come pre-ins­talled with Chinese phones. There was hardly any attempt to create a suitable ecosystem for production of mobile phones even if it meant seeking the coo­peration of South Korean companies. Indian apps have emerged on the scene to challenge Chinese and get a piece of the market pie. These include some launched by Reliance’s Jio and several others rolled out by tech companies under the brand names Mitron and Chingari, Samosa, InShorts and Myantra etc. But most of the top 10 Chinese apps have 10 to 50 times more users in India than their Indian counterparts.

One reason for this is China’s ability to produce extremely user-friendly apps that encourage tech-unsavvy users to create and use content. The result is a network of users that act as a marketing mechanism for the app company. “Indians are known to adopt new technologies very fast. But they are not the best when it comes to creating digital media platforms,” Sinha says. “Besides, huge investments are required to continuously upgrade the platforms and market them,” he adds.

An important question whether the ban is merely a non-military response to Chinese aggression on the border or part of a larger plan hatched in New Delhi’s South Block. A long-term strategic programme would involve encouraging Indian tech firms to come up with new platforms and enrich existing ones to take advantage of the market gap.

Put together, the banned Chinese apps are known to have total users exceeding 800 million with every third mobile phone user using at least one of them. The government has not banned a some popular Chinese apps, including AliExpress, TurboVPN, PUBG Mobile, PUBG Lite, MV Master and App Lock. Is it because India does not see them as sec­urity risks or simply forgot?

What Next?

In China, thousands of foreigners and many Chinese use banned apps and websites by connecting through virtual private network (VPN) which can make your online activities untraceable. The Communist government has failed to control their almost mushrooming growth.

There is a strong possibility that VPN would become an extensively used option in India because a vast population of Indians have become addicted to TikTok or use Chinese apps simply because it is already downloaded in their mobile phones.

At present, few people other than trying to access porn sites use VPN in India. There are several VPN apps available over the Internet and many people suspect the motives of companies who provide the freebies without even earning from advertising.

Chinese companies may begin distributing free VPN apps to retain their customer base, analysts say. The government may have to find a way to resolve what appears to be an emerging challenge.