For all the attention paid to the boom in use of the videoconferencing app Zoom, the big winner of the coronavirus lockdown so far may be a less work-oriented, more social Zoom competitor called Houseparty.
Bloomberg News reports that Houseparty has "been one of the most popular social-networking apps in Apple Inc.’s store every day since March 20, and co-founder Sima Sistani told Bloomberg News in mid-April that it had seen more than 50 million sign-ups in the past month."
The Financial Times reports, "Last week alone, the San Francisco-based app, which is owned by Fortnite developer Epic Games, raked in 2m downloads worldwide, compared with around 130,000 the same week a month ago, according to data from App Annie. It currently ranks at number one in the Apple app store in 17 countries including the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy."
Houseparty parent company Epic Games, meanwhile, is partially owned by Tencent Holdings Ltd., a company controlled by Chinese government officials.
Should Houseparty users care that China has a piece of the program?
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney last year addressed Tencent’s influence.
He was dismissive of the concerns. "All of Epic’s investors are our friends and partners. None can dictate decisions to Epic. None have access to Epic customer data," he said.
"We invited Tencent in as an investor to help us. I’ve never regretted it, and the recent anti-China rage doesn’t change that even slightly, as it’s completely unfounded. Epic has only had positive interactions with Tencent at all levels."
Others are more skeptical about Tencent. A 2020 special report by Freedom House, an American watchdog, research, and advocacy group, titled "China’s Global Megaphone," says that "Although privately owned, Chinese technology giants like Huawei and Tencent retain close ties with the Chinese government and security services, routinely providing censorship and surveillance assistance to the party-state within China.
"The international expansion of such companies has received the explicit blessing of the CCP. For example, in a 2017 essay in the authoritative party journal Qiushi on China’s strategy for becoming a 'cyber superpower,' the authors cited the objective of enhancing 'the global influence of internet companies like Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, [and] Huawei.'"
A 2019 article by Freedom House’s Sarah Cook said that "Regardless of whether Tencent is a reluctant or an eager accomplice to the Chinese government’s repressive policies, the reality is that Tencent employees can be expected to censor, monitor, and report private communications and personal data, in many cases leading to innocent people’s arrest and torture."
The article advised, "investors in Tencent should seriously consider the moral and political implications of their support for the firm. Anyone concerned about human rights, electoral interference by foreign powers, or privacy violations by tech giants should divest from the company, including retirement funds." The company’s survival "depends on dutiful adherence to Communist Party directives," Cook wrote.
The chairman of Tencent, Pony Ma, "is a deputy to the 13th National People’s Congress," according to the company’s website, and an independent non-executive director, Yang Siu Shun, "is currently serving as a Member of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Po"litical Consultative Conference."
That this is even a topic of discussion is a signal of how the "anti-China rage" mentioned by Sweeney last year has only accelerated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic that appears to have originated in China.
"There’s going to be a big reassessment of our relationship with China," the former speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who was the Republican Party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, said recently.
"There was a debate about decoupling before Covid. Now the debate is settled. We are going to have decoupling."
A professor of political science emeritus at the University of Chicago, Charles Lipson, writes at RealClearPolitics, "China’s secrecy and deception imposed huge costs in lives and livelihoods around the world. Their regime will pay a heavy price as world politics is reshaped to see China as a dangerous adversary, not a benign partner. … expect to see U.S. foreign policy reshaped by the deepening Sino-American conflict."
Lee Smith writes in Tablet, "the wisdom of exporting millions of American manufacturing jobs and large parts of critical supply chains for everything from medication to ventilators to a hostile overseas power is looking ever more questionable, as a novel pathogen of Chinese origin has wreaked havoc on the American economy and locked the entire country indoors."
Meanwhile, "The F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security are preparing to issue a warning that China’s most skilled hackers and spies are working to steal American research in the crash effort to develop vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus," the New York Times reports.
Some may ask themselves whether America can afford a conflict with China on the heels of a costly coronavirus recession. It’s a reasonable question. But people will also ask, reasonably, about the price of continued friendship and partnership of the sort Sweeney describes.
Is the "party" in the Houseparty app the Chinese Communist Party?
Even the liveliest parties eventually come to an end.
Ira Stoll is author of "JFK, Conservative," and "Samuel Adams: A Life." Read Ira Stoll's Reports — More Here.
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