American Companies Risk Boycotts in China if Biden Bans TikTok

Chinese consumers mistrust U.S. motives surrounding the issue and say they would likely boycott American brands in retaliation
Graphic featuring images of mobile phone featuring TikTok app with flags of the U.S. and China in the background
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Kelly Rice
April 26, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • A majority of Chinese adults are paying attention to news about legislation that would ban TikTok in the United States unless the app is sold by its Chinese parent company.

  • While U.S. legislators have argued that Chinese ownership of the app poses a national security risk, Chinese adults are suspicious of the U.S. government’s motives.

  • When asked about these motives, respondents are more likely to cite America’s desire to constrain China than its concerns about data privacy or national security. Chinese adults also see U.S. bias against China as a potential driver.

  • While enforcing a ban on TikTok would face steep hurdles, passing such legislation could still lead to significant backlash against U.S. brands from Chinese consumers: Nearly two-thirds (65%) said they would likely boycott U.S. tech companies in retaliation.

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The Chinese-owned short video app TikTok has become a source of consternation to the U.S. government amid its surging popularity with American consumers, sparking worries about both the app’s addictive nature and its potential security risks — namely, Chinese authorities’ ability to access user data.

While the Biden administration initially scuttled Trump-era plans to ban the app in favor of a broader review of the security challenges posed by foreign software, a potential TikTok ban is back on the table after the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee approved legislation that would give President Joe Biden the authority to ban it. Biden has yet to comment on the legislation, which would still need to be approved by Congress.

The renewed ban initiative follows the Biden administration’s calls for parent company ByteDance to divest itself of TikTok on the recommendation of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States after several years of discussions between the two parties over security concerns. Momentum has recently picked up: Numerous states have banned the app from official government devices, and Montana became the first state to pass an outright ban.

Ticked off over TikTok

Any ban would likely face lengthy U.S. court challenges over potential constitutional barriers to limiting mediums of communication. This could ultimately prevent a ban from ever taking effect, despite it appearing to have broad support among the American electorate (and especially older voters). Yet even if never enacted, such legislation could still have measurable consequences for U.S. brands operating in China. According to our data, Chinese consumers are likely to interpret a TikTok ban as a vindictive attempt to constrain a Chinese company rather than as a response to legitimate national security concerns, and many say they would be willing to boycott U.S. companies in retaliation.

Chinese consumers are paying attention

A slim majority of Chinese adults (52%) say they are paying at least some attention to news about a potential TikTok ban in the United States, though the issue has not dominated the domestic news cycle. Just 15% of adults say they have heard “a lot” about the issue, with young Chinese paying the least attention. Gen Zers are unique in that a majority say they’ve seen, read or heard “not much” or “nothing at all” about the issue.

A Majority of Chinese Adults Are Following News About a Potential U.S. TikTok Ban

Respondents indicated how much they have seen, read or heard about the issue
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Survey conducted April 5-9, 2023, among a representative sample of 1,000 Chinese adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Two-thirds of Chinese adults say they would likely retaliate against U.S. tech companies

The threat of banning a successful Chinese tech company from operating in the United States evokes a strong response from Chinese consumers, with the share saying they would be moved to act in the event of a U.S. ban exceeding even the share who say they are paying attention to the issue. Roughly 3 in 5 say they would be at least somewhat likely to boycott U.S. companies in response to legislation banning or forcing the divestiture of TikTok, and nearly two-thirds (65%) say they would specifically target U.S. tech companies.

These numbers are held in check by the high share of Gen Z adults who say they are uncertain about the issue (over 50% for both companies in general and tech companies specifically). On the other hand, 72% of millennials and 80% of Gen Xers say they would likely boycott some U.S. companies, while the numbers are even higher when asked about retaliation against U.S. tech companies specifically (75% and 83%, respectively).

Two-Thirds of Chinese Adults Say They Would Likely Boycott U.S. Tech Companies in Response to a TikTok Ban

Respondents indicated their likelihood of boycotting the following in the event of a ban:
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Survey conducted April 5-9, 2023, among a representative sample of 1,000 Chinese adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Chinese suspicion about U.S. motives

Washington has argued that TikTok’s pervasiveness represents a security risk on the grounds that all Chinese-owned companies are ultimately beholden to Beijing, which could compel a company like TikTok to hand over sensitive user data on Americans. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has framed the issue in terms of geopolitical competition and general vindictiveness, arguing that an insecure United States is disingenuously raising security concerns and wielding TikTok as a cudgel to attack China in hopes of constraining its economic success and rising influence.

There is, of course, some irony here, given the vast number of U.S. tech and social media companies China prohibits from operating in its market. Nonetheless, the narrative seems to have struck a chord with Chinese consumers, many of whom are incensed over the prospect of the United States banning their country’s most internationally successful brand. This also touches on insecurities related to the minimal international reach of most other large Chinese brands relative to the country’s prodigious economic influence.

Chinese Adults See U.S. Desire to Constrain China, Not Security Concerns, as the Primary Driver of a Proposed TikTok Ban

Respondents selected up to two reasons they believe the U.S. government wants to ban TikTok
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Survey conducted April 5-9, 2023, among a representative sample of 1,000 Chinese adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.

When asked to select the top two reasons they think the U.S. government wants to ban TikTok unless the app is sold to a non-Chinese parent company, Chinese adults are most likely to say the move is driven by a desire to constrain China (25%). This outweighs U.S. concerns about data privacy (19%) and national security (16%). Bias against Chinese companies (20%) and against Chinese people in general (19%) also rank highly as suspected motives.

As attitudes harden, U.S. brands may suffer

Many Chinese consumers clearly view U.S. demands for the banning or divestiture of TikTok with suspicion. Such legislation may ultimately never pass, at least at a national level. And even if it does, a ban may never take effect, given potential constitutional challenges and ByteDance’s deep pockets, which could fund a lengthy court battle. Still, the U.S. legislation will continue to make headlines in China as it progresses, reinforcing official narratives about America’s desire to constrain Chinese success and further curdling Chinese attitudes toward the United States. Retaliation against U.S. companies, both official and consumer-driven, may follow.

While respondents were least likely to blame U.S. tech companies for lobbying for such a move (only 10% did so), such companies may still suffer fallout over the issue given the large share of Chinese adults who said they would consider boycotting U.S. companies, and especially U.S. tech companies. American brands reliant on Chinese consumers should thus pay close attention to further policy moves as they unfold, as their access to the Chinese market could be impacted by TikTok’s shifting status, as well as the narrative surrounding it, regardless of whether a ban or divestment is ever realized.

A headshot photograph of Scott Moskowitz
Scott Moskowitz
Senior Analyst, APAC

Scott Moskowitz is senior analyst for the Asia-Pacific region at Morning Consult, where he leads geopolitical analysis of China and broader regional issues. Scott holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University and has years of experience working in and conducting Mandarin-language research on China, with an emphasis on the politics of economic development and consumerism. Follow him on Twitter @ScottyMoskowitz. Interested in connecting with Scott to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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