In recent years, ByteDance’s TikTok has been the subject of intense scrutiny by lawmakers and intelligence officials, who harbor concerns over potential espionage activities. However, it’s not just TikTok that has captured attention; several other Chinese apps with similar security issues are also gaining immense popularity in the United States.
The primary source of concern surrounding ByteDance stems from a Chinese national security law that grants the government access to extensive business information under the pretext of national security. Worries among U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers center on the Chinese government’s potential ability to access any data collected from American users by China-based app companies, ranging from email addresses and user interests to driver’s license information.
Despite these concerns, many consumers seem undeterred, as various China-based apps continue to flourish in the U.S. market.
For instance, the shopping app Temu, owned by China-based PDD Holdings, currently holds the second spot among free apps on the Apple App Store as of late May. In the 2022 holiday season, it ranked 12th among digital retailers in terms of unique visitors to its site, surpassing renowned stores like Kohl’s, Wayfair, and Nordstrom. Its rise can be partially attributed to its visibility on TikTok, according to Insider Intelligence.
Moreover, ByteDance-owned apps CapCut and TikTok hold the fourth and fifth positions in the App Store rankings, respectively. Chinese fast fashion brand Shein occupies the fourteenth spot.
Following the TikTok CEO’s congressional hearing in late March, ByteDance’s Lemon8 witnessed nearly one million downloads in the U.S. between late March and early April, as reported by Insider Intelligence based on data from Apptopia. Lemon8, an app with similarities to Pinterest and Meta’s Instagram, gained significant traction during this period.
These apps share certain features that have raised concerns within the U.S. government regarding TikTok. One such concern revolves around whether these firms adequately protect user data from the U.S. when operating out of China (TikTok has emphasized that U.S. user information is solely stored on servers outside of China). Similar to TikTok, these apps collect user information, analyze user interests, and utilize algorithms to target consumers with relevant products and information to enhance engagement with the service.
Nonetheless, experts specializing in China and social media note that there are crucial distinctions between these apps and TikTok, which may explain the relatively limited attention directed at them. One of the most significant differentiating factors is the scale of their presence in the U.S.
While the user base of many popular Chinese apps continues to grow, it pales in comparison to TikTok’s colossal U.S. audience of 150 million monthly active users.
For instance, TikTok’s sister app Lemon8 has an estimated 1.8 million monthly active users in the U.S., as per Apptopia’s data.
Comparatively, TikTok has amassed 415 million downloads in the U.S. since its launch, whereas CapCut, Temu, and Lemon8 have recorded 99 million, 67 million, and 1.2 million downloads, respectively, according to Apptopia.
Out of this group of apps, only Shein surpasses TikTok in terms of downloads, although it entered the U.S. market much earlier in 2014. Shein’s app has accumulated 855 million downloads since its debut, but Apptopia estimates it currently has approximately 22 million monthly active users.
Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, asserts that an app with a thousand or even a million users in the U.S. does not pose the same widespread.