Bytedance’s mega app Tiktok has been removed from Android and Apple app stores in India, its second-largest market, following a Monday ban on 59 Chinese apps on national security concerns. The ban comes two weeks after a border clash with China left 20 Indian soldiers dead. 

Among those blacklisted are popular Chinese apps like Tiktok, Wechat, Baidu Maps, Baidu Translate, Sina Corp’s microblogging platform Weibo, as well as mobile games Mobile Legends Bang Bang and Clash of Kings. Other banned apps popular in India include Chinese-owned e-commerce platforms Shein and Club Factory, Bytedance’s social media app Helo, and Alibaba’s UC Browser. 

A door slammed shut: Losing access to India’s market is a blow for Chinese companies like Bytedance, which aim to ride India’s rapid growth in mobile internet penetration.

  • India’s mobile app market is still developing, and rapidly. Smartphone users in India are projected to double to 1.25 billion by 2024 from 610 million in 2018, according to India-based think tank Gateway House. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of app downloads increased by 165%.
  • Some companies have made big bets on the Indian market: Alibaba’s fintech arm Ant Financial has invested close to $2.7 billion in seven companies, while Tencent has spread $2 billion across 15 firms.
  • A big loser from this decision will be Bytedance, the owner of Tiktok. According to Sensor Tower, 30% of Tiktok’s more than 2 billion global downloads come from India.

The companies react: Bytedance told TechNode that its team of 2,000 employees in India “is committed to working with the government to demonstrate our dedication to user security and our commitment to the country overall.”

  • Club Factory, which has more than 100 million monthly active users in the country, told TechNode that it was compliant with privacy practices and had “provided direct employment to hundreds of people in India.”
  • “We have always been willing and continue to remain committed to working with the Government to resolve any concerns,” the company added.
  • Spokespersons from Tencent, Xiaomi, and Baidu declined to comment. Alibaba had not responded to requests for comment as of publication.

Collateral damage: Many analysts see this decision as a direct reaction to the border clash, bolstered by other factors like protectionism.

  • “I would say that it’s more of a nationalist response,” said Hamsini Hariharan, host of the States of Anarchy podcast, which focuses on global affairs and Indian foreign policy.
  • She continued, “I think the government wanted to just send a message that they weren’t taking the border lying down, and they figured the Chinese apps were a good way to do it.”
  • Deep K. Datta-Ray, visiting senior fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, concurred that the ban was “in the first instance a tit-for-tat response to Chinese actions along the border.”

Protecting our own: However, Datta-Ray added that “these actions are in keeping with a generally isolationist and nativist approach” on India’s part, as seen in moves such as its withdrawal from the mega free trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in late 2019.

Nationalist tide: The app ban follows a China-India border clash in the Himalayas that left 20 Indian soldiers dead, the first time in nearly 50 years that Indian soldiers had been killed on the border.

  • That clash stoked anti-China sentiment in India, with a former Indian ambassador to China calling it a “turning point,” although not a “breaking point,” in Sino-Indian relations.
  • In May, an app called “Remove China Apps” rose to the top of India’s Android store amid growing China-India tensions. That app was itself removed from the Google Play store on June 3.
  • On June 17, national intelligence agencies in India asked the government to block 52 mobile apps by Chinese developers, informing the current ban.
  • People in India “have already been talking about boycotting goods from China,” Hariharan told TechNode, and so “this current ban of the apps is just part of that nationalist wave.”

Swing state, swung: In the context of US-China tech tensions, some analysts have interpreted this ban as a loss for China.

  • For China, India “was almost a tech ‘swing state,’” Rush Doshi, director of the China Strategy Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said on Twitter. “But with bans on these apps and new restrictions on Huawei, that strategy is seriously imperiled.”
  • In April 2020, Chicago-based think tank Macro Polo compared the top 10 apps from different countries in 2015 and 2019, and concluded that “Chinese apps have taken the lead in by far the largest emerging market: India.”
  • In 2015, three of the top 10 apps in India were from China. By 2019, that had risen to six: Tiktok, video-based social media platform Likee, Bytedance’s Helo, file sharing app Shareit, and Alibaba’s UC Browser and video sharing app Vmate.
  • Though some of those names may not be familiar, they totaled 982 million downloads combined during the year.
  • However, India has swung back and forth on China, and this may not be the closing act. In April 2019, Tiktok was banned in India for two weeks for allegedly spreading pornography, but made a swift comeback upon its return to the app store.

Firewall goes up: It isn’t entirely clear how the ban will be implemented. Some apps have already been taken down from app stores, but actively restricting their use would require additional steps.

  • Tiktok appears to have been removed from the Apple and Google stores in India, TechNode sources in India have confirmed.
  • However, that won’t stop people who have already downloaded the apps from continuing to use them. Some reports say to expect restrictions from internet service providers that will require virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around. 
  • The Indian Express states that this notice “is expected to be followed by instructions to Internet service providers to block these apps,” but it’s unclear when that will be implemented. 
  • As of now, TechNode sources in India are able to use apps like Wechat and Cam Scanner without a VPN, and can still access e-commerce websites like Shein from desktop browsers.
  • According to Datta-Ray, “India has chosen a low-denomination item, apps, and a masked response… because China is by far, in a stronger position.” At the end of the day, that means despite an intensification “in name,” “business might very well continue as usual.”

Shaun Ee is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University and nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council, working at the intersection of geopolitics, tech, and national security. Before moving back to Asia,...

Writing about semiconductors and telecommunications.