Chinese Apps: As Indian Video-Sharing Apps Capitalise on Ban, TikTok Distances Itself from Beijing

In a letter to the Indian government, TikTok chief executive Kevin Mayer said the Chinese government has never requested user data, nor would the company turn it over if asked.

New Delhi: Indian tech and entertainment firms are looking to capitalise on sudden opportunities arising from the government ban on Chinese owned apps, one of the most popular in the banned list, social media app TikTok has distanced itself from Beijing, according to a correspondence seen by Reuters.

In a letter to the Indian government dated June 28 and seen by Reuters on Friday, TikTok chief executive Kevin Mayer said the Chinese government has never requested user data, nor would the company turn it over if asked.

TikTok, which is not available in China, is owned by China’s ByteDance but has sought to distance itself from its Chinese roots to appeal to a global audience. Along with 58 other Chinese apps, including Tencent Holdings Ltd’s WeChat and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd’s UC Browser, it was banned in India this week following a border clash with China.

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“I can confirm that the Chinese government has never made a request to us for the TikTok data of Indian users,” Mayer wrote, adding that data for Indian users is stored in servers in Singapore. “If we do ever receive such a request in the future, we would not comply.”

The letter was sent ahead of a likely meeting next week between the company and the government, one source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

One Indian government source told Reuters this week the ban was unlikely to be revoked soon. Lawyers have said a legal challenge was unlikely to be successful, given India has cited national security concerns for the ban.

TikTok has committed to spend $1 billion in the region. Since its launch in 2017, it has become one of the fastest- growing social media apps. India is its largest market by user, followed by the United States.

In the letter, Mayer played up the company’s investment in the region, highlighting more than 3,500 direct and indirect employees and content available in 14 languages.

“The privacy of our users, and the security and sovereignty of India, are of utmost importance to us,” Mayer wrote. “We have already announced our plans to build a data centre in India.”

The correspondence was first reported by the Wall Street Journal and other media.

Boon for Indian apps

Indian tech and entertainment firms are looking to capitalise on sudden opportunities arising now, with one video app that had rivalled TikTok saying it had added 22 million users in 48 hours.

With 200 million Indians users, TikTok, which features a simple user interface, background music options and various special effects, was a burgeoning force in the nation’s social media scene and the ban left its fans scrambling for options.

Roposo, an Indian video-sharing social media app similar to TikTok that been around since 2014, saw its user base jump by 22 million in the two days after India banned the Chinese apps, the company’s founder Mayank Bhangadia told Reuters.

“In the last few days I’ve slept for a total of five hours, and its the same for our entire team,” Bhangadia said. “The load is so much and we’re just ensuring that the experience is as smooth as possible.”

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Roposo’s downloads on Google’s Android now total over 80 million, and Bhangadia expects that to reach 100 million in just a few days. Before the ban, Roposo had roughly 50 million installs on Android devices, which account for a bulk of India’s nearly 500 million smartphones.

Based in the southern Indian tech hub of Bengaluru, the company has just 200 staff now but is planning to hire as many as 10,000 people over the next two years and may take the app global, Bhangadia said.

Other home-grown TikTok alternatives such as Chingari and Mitron are also finding favour with users, with many taking to social media to echo Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for “atma-nirbhar” or self-reliant India.

MyGov, the federal government’s citizen engagement website, last month created its account on Roposo.

“We have to create our own ecosystem, every country has done this, this is our Atmanirbhar programme,” said a government minister.

New players are also jumping into the fray. Mumbai-based Zee Entertainment Enterprises (ZEE.NS) is set to launch an ad-supported, short-video platform, named HiPi, in the next two months, Rajneel Kumar, the product head for its digital unit Zee5 said.

He hoped that former TikTok users would “find a home within Hipi to be able to continue to enjoy the content they enjoyed.”

(Reporting by Aditya Kalra and Sankalp Phartiyal)