Across China’s social media platforms, commentators agree on one thing: Bytedance better buckle up, because the US isn’t backing down anytime soon.

That might be their only point of agreement. Some suggest that Bytedance and others should take the high road and still champion globalization, but some others think it’s time to knuckle down. Some don’t rule out a Tiktok sale, and some are adamantly against it.

And they reach for different points of comparison too, some less familiar to Western audiences. What comes to mind when you think about Bytedance’s current predicament? Is it 1980s Japan? How about the Battle of Shangganling during the Korean War?

To give you an insight into what Chinese netizens are sharing, TechNode’s selected and translated some of the most popular Weixin and Weibo posts that have emerged over the past week.

A little déjà vu

For some commentators, what’s happening to Bytedance isn’t new. On microblogging platform Weibo, Ryo Takeuchi, a Japanese film director who lives in Nanjing, received over 100,000 likes for his comment (in Chinese) about 1980s Japan:

In my memory, Sony, Panasonic, and other companies were often chastised, and what we Japanese took for “self-improvement,” Americans took for ‘piracy.’ Afterwards, the US government started to use all kinds of methods to control and critique Japanese companies and the Japanese government. When I saw the news that Microsoft was suspending negotiations on purchasing Tiktok’s US business, I suddenly thought of that Japan, more than 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese comic artist “Lao Pei” saw some parallels with the fates of Alstom and Toshiba, in a comic (in Chinese) shared on Weibo by several users (3,500 likes):

Tiktok Bytedance cartoon
“Free market” this way, says the sign in the first panel. In Lao Pei’s rendition, though, what awaits the deliciously plump TikTok is a slightly less happy fate. (Image credit: Lao Pei)

Bytedance’s Zhang Yiming: ‘Too quick to kneel’?

Despite his predicament, Bytedance CEO Zhang Yiming has received startlingly little sympathy, with commentators accusing him of being naïve in adopting an apolitical “Martian perspective,” or of “kneeling too fast” in agreeing to sell Tiktok to Microsoft.

In a Weixin article (in Chinese) on “The frightening Zhang Yiming and his views on friendship!” Li Tongwei also notes a lack of support from Zhang Yiming’s colleagues compared to a 2018 episode with Lenovo (57,000 reads):

In recent days, there has been an unceasing stream of news about Tiktok meeting with unjust treatment overseas, but China’s domestic entrepreneurs have maintained a rarely seen collective silence. 

This is a vast difference from 2018, when Lenovo was accused of being “unpatriotic,” Liu Chuanzhi expressed his fury, and then half of the corporate community voiced their support.

As far as the eye can see, Bytedance seems to have no friends.

One other commentator, Wen Boling, has a bit more compassion for Zhang Yiming. Wang sees Zhang as soft, but typical of his generation’s entrepreneurs. In a Weixin article (in Chinese) “The Tiktok Affair: Scholar Zhang Yiming and Gangster [shehuiren] Trump,” Wen contrasts Zhang’s generation unfavorably with Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei, and his reaction to his daughter’s detention in Canada (38,000 reads, 1,300 reactions):

Precisely because they knew what they were up against, Huawei and Ren Zhengfei steeled themselves to shoulder the burden till now, becoming heroes in Chinese people’s hearts. Huawei’s phones became patriotic products, and their sales volume steadily rose.

In the Tiktok incident, Zhang Yiming also had his chance to be a hero.

But his repeated concessions willfully cast away this opportunity, so not only does he lose money on his US business, he’s also gained a bad name in China.

‘Abandon your fantasies, and prepare to fight!’

Meanwhile, author “Xiaoxiang Sanren” sees a different generational divide on the other side of the Pacific: one between older doves and younger hawks in the US, which makes growing conflict inevitable. Xiaoxiang Sanren’s Weixin article (in Chinese) is, fittingly, titled “Bytedance: understand the terrain, abandon your fantasies, and prepare to fight!” (13,000 reads)

With the passage of time, there are fewer and fewer “old friends of the Chinese people.” Kissinger is 97 years old, and Bill Gates is 65—aged and marginal.

Long-time anti-China US Senator Marco Rubio is just 50 years old. And Zuckerberg? 36 this year, even younger than Zhang Yiming. You can imagine that Rubio and Zuckerberg will remain active in US government and business circles for quite some time, and their antagonistic attitude toward China will be hard to change.

Better to just get it over with, rather than prolong the agony. With the circumstances too strong to fight, abandoning the US market is perhaps a choice that Bytedance has no option but to confront.

But then, should Bytedance sell Tiktok to Microsoft? Absolutely not, writes “Xiaoxiang Sanren,” because this will threaten Bytedance’s business in China and elsewhere. “Death is coming anyway, so you might as well go down fighting.”

That hardline stance isn’t unique among Chinese commentators, and “The Talented Shui Mujun” goes for an even more military comparison in the most popular Weixin article we found (in Chinese), “The US is robbing Douyin in broad daylight, and the darkest hour is here: you can’t even imagine how much trouble China is in!” (over 100,000 reads, 36,000 reactions).

The article compares Bytedance and Huawei’s predicaments to the Korean War’s Battle of Shangganling, a bloody battle in which Chinese troops successfully repulsed UN forces at the cost of thousands of lives, later mythologized in a Chinese war movie.

Someone once said, “Huawei is the ‘Battle of Shangganling’ of the current US-China relationship. Only if we win a victory in this Battle of Shangganling will the US sign a peace agreement with China.”

Shangganling is just a little hill in North Korea, barely 3.7 square kilometers in size, truly insignificant.

But if you can’t hold onto Shangganling, then what about other mountains?

Should you lose a single inch of elevation, then all that’s left is to retreat again and again in defeat.

‘Stay cool, and don’t be biased’

But there are more moderate voices too. In a more philosophical piece (in Chinese), “Bytedance and Tencent’s Question of Destiny: What is America?” (57,000 reads, 1,700 reactions) blogger Lu Shihan ponders the contradiction between a US that is a “universal beacon” of freedom and democracy, and a US that is a “capitalist country full of discrimination.”

Both are real, Lu Shihan concludes—but lamentably, the first one disappeared thirty years ago. Now, China must ride out the convulsions of a declining US, but stay true to the spirit of globalization that the US once epitomized.

Globalization still brings us benefits, so we must guard against being biased by narrow-minded populism into confrontation and a new Cold War.

In actuality, everyone basically understands that time is on our side, and as long as we keep steady, what comes next will naturally be a new era. But the next few months are the danger zone, and Trump will probably continue to flail rabidly at US-China relations. We must stay cool and not be biased.

From this perspective, I believe that, be it Bytedance, Tencent, or yet another Chinese enterprise, when shut out and sanctioned at the administrative level, it is still inadvisable to play the nationalist card and intensify confrontation.

Put another way: we’ve shouldered this burden for decades. Don’t lose it at the last moment.

For Zhang Yiming and Bytedance, who’ve set their sights so firmly on globalization, the reality of being caught between two countries must be painful.

Surely, though, the most crushing part is the possibility that they’ll disappoint both.

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Shaun Ee

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,...