TikTok Approaches Zero Hour

I have been writing this Web log since 2006, and I suppose regular readers have long since deduced that the Washington DC suburb of Great Falls, Virginia, where I live, is a rather upscale neighborhood. And, I would hasten to add, I am hardly the wealthiest inhabitant of the cul de sac where my home is located. My new next-door neighbors, for example, are a couple of Gen Z anchor babies hailing from two of the richest families in the Peoples Republic of China. He drives a Ferrari, she drives a Lamborghini. They party throughout the week at all hours, hang out at the Saudi compound on Chain Bridge Road with similarly spoiled rich young Arabs, and ride helicopters to Dulles Airport, where they are whisked away to exotic garden spots and major world capitals in private jets to spend their parents’ money as profligately as possible on all manner of amusements, adventure and luxury goods. And they fight. Oh, my God, do they fight.
Last night, Cerise and I were enjoying a repast of canard à l’orange with black Périgord truffles and a nice 2012 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut when their latest row began – or at least when it became audible in my dining room. Cerise took out her iPhone and turned up the volume on the Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 and we simply continued our conversation in a somewhat louder tone. Ignoring them became considerably more problematic, however, a few minutes after I took the fainting goat’s milk crème brûlée out of the oven and the sounds of breaking dishes and furniture being thrown through windows began to overcome Christopher Hogwood’s best efforts. And as I brought the kopi luwak cappuccinos to the table, the wife, Sha-bi Cao, started pounding on the front door, yelling for help.
“Tom! Tom!” Sha-bi screamed as Cerise flung the door wide and she ran in, frantic. “Chi Dou-fu is trying to kill me!”
“I’m calling the police,” Cerise flatly declared as she quickly closed the front door and locked it.
No! No! No police! Chi Dou-fu’s coked out of his mind! No cops!”
“Oh, all right,” Cerise relented with a world-weary sigh as the sound of someone pounding metal and breaking glass echoed across the cul de sac. I looked out the window. Chi Dou-fu was trashing Sha-bi’s Lamborghini with a sledge hammer.
“Give me your phone!” Sha-bi implored of Cerise, who complied with a shrug.
Sha-bi began frantically punching in a number. “Got to call private security instead!”
Meanwhile, the banging and smashing sounds had stopped. Cerise went into the living room and peeked out a window from the edge of a curtain. “Tom,” she declared in a calm voice, “he’s coming over here. Are the garage, the back door, the entrance to the deck and so forth locked?”
I ran into the library, grabbed my own phone and locked everything. “They are now.” Then I took my Heckler and Koch VP9 out of the desk drawer. (Quite legal. Remember, this was happening in Virginia, where the Second Amendment is considered to be the Eleventh Commandment.)
Chi Dou-fu began banging on the front door. “Collins! Open this [expletive] door!”
“Having a bad night?” I asked as I complied, holding the 9 mm pistol behind my back.
“Where the [expletive] is that [expletive] [expletive]?” Chi Dou-fu demanded.
“Why are you looking for her?” I asked as I peered out past him, my gaze scanning the cul de sac, coming to rest on Sha-bi’s totaled Lamborghini. “And… what happened to her car, by the way?”
Chi Dou-fu did a double take back at the trashed Lamborghini in his driveway, the sledgehammer handle protruding from the driver-side window. “Uh… burglars… vandals… something like that,” he stuttered, moving his head left and right, trying to see past me into the foyer. “That’s uh… that’s why I’m looking for her… make sure she’s all right. Can’t find her anywhere.”
“And what,” I obfuscated, “makes you think she would be at my place?”
“I… uh… I thought I saw her come over here,” he stammered, “a couple of minutes ago.”
“Really?” I replied in a skeptical tone, looking him up and down with mock concern. “You… okay?”
It was then, apparently, that Chi Dou-fu suddenly became aware he was standing in front of his next door neighbor with a bloody nose and heavy Martell Chanteloup XXO breath, wearing a torn four thousand dollar bespoke Kiton silk shirt, drenched in a sheen of sweat that reeked of Peruvian flake. “Um… okay… thanks,” he murmured. “I’m gonna go look… uh… over there,” he mumbled, gesturing at the house belonging to his other next-door neighbor.
“There’s nobody home,” I called out after him as he stumbled away.
“What on earth were you two fighting about?” Cerise asked Sha-bi Cao as I entered the dining room, laying my pistol on the sideboard.
“In… Inst… Insta… Instagram,” she sobbed.
“Instagram?” Cerise repeated. “What about Instagram?”
“He… he… saw a DM… to one… of my… girlfriends,” she slowly choked out with considerable effort.
“Oh hell,” Cerise demanded in an irritated tone, “spit it out, dear. What did the damn direct message say?”
“I… called him…” Sha-bi Cao began sobbing again. “Called… him…” She stopped, blew her nose on the sleeve of her five thousand dollar Dolce and Gabbana satin blouse. “I… called… him…”
“For Christ’s sake,” Cerise interrupted, “what? You called him what? What did you call him?”
“I called him… cheugy!” she bellowed. “On Instagram! And he saw it!”
“All right dear,” Cerise cooed, giving Sha-bi Cao a reassuring hug while rolling her eyes to the ceiling. “Have a seat here at the table. Tom – go in the kitchen, get some of that Moroccan saffron sorbet you made for tomorrow, cut these two cold crème brûlée into three servings, put the kopi luwak in a blender with some of your best Alaskan glacier shards and make three iced blender cappuccinos with it, and we’ll have a nice dessert with our new guest.
“Tha… tha… thank you,” Sha-bi Cao sobbed.
The private security vehicles – three hulking Chevy Suburbans with tinted windows – arrived outside the house next door while we dined on saffron sorbet-topped cold crème brûlée and iced kopi luwak cappuccinos. Then, from the edge of the living room curtains, we watched as the private security agents talked cheugy Chi Dou-fu down from his homicidal rage-out and a wrecker truck winched up what was left of Sha-bi Cao’s Lamborghini onto a car trailer and drove away with it. Then we watched as Chi Dou-fu jumped in his Ferrari and took off for parts unknown, after which Sha-bi cao called an Uber, gave Cerise another tearful, sobbing hug, went outside, scurried down my front walk and got in.
“Unbelievably vulgar, both of them, engaging in an absurd domestic argument like that,” I opined as we watched the Uber disappear into the night.
“‘Vulgarity’ is an outmoded late medieval concept derived from class discrimination that has no place in twenty-first century discourse,” Cerise shot back.
“On the contrary,” I disagreed. “Vulgarity not only survived the renaissance and the industrial revolution, there will no doubt be plenty of it go around on New Year’s Day, 2101.”
“Well,” Cerise replied, “I’m certainly not about to prove you right by starting an absurd domestic argument over it.”
That’s what I love about her.
And speaking of twenty-first century vulgarity… TikTok!

This morning I received one of his periodic visits from Dr. Zǒugǒu Gòngchǎn, Second Secretary for Economic Affairs here at the Embassy of the Peoples Republic of China in Washington. There were some serious cracks in his usual inscrutable countenance that hinted a one of those rare problems that send him into a state of frantic desperation. One dead giveaway is his nervous tic of rubbing his right index finger behind his right ear; another, which only evidences itself in states of particular mental frenzy, is rapid blinking. So when he sat down on the office couch in front of the picture window that overlooks the White House and started in on both the moment he put his attaché case on the coffee table, I knew I was in for something… special. He did not disappoint.
“Mr. Collins,” he wailed, “I simply cannot believe the hypocrisy of your country’s government! You say you believe in free enterprise! You say you believe in free speech! You say you believe in the pursuit of happiness! And what does TikTok do? It creates hundreds of thousands of small businesses! It provides free speech for one hundred and forty million Americans! And it makes them all happy! And what does your House of Representatives do? They pass a bill to destroy TikTok!”
“By a margin of three hundred and fifty-two to sixty-five,” I observed. “One must admit, it was definitely surprising to find out there is something that the current gibbering, feces-hurling, partisan primate troupes of the House can, in fact, agree upon.”
“Yes!” Dr. Zǒugǒu exclaimed. “That they hate TikTok! And what’s more, your Senate Intelligence Committee and your Senate Commerce Committee just received a top secret briefing on TikTok from your FBI, your CIA, your DNI and your DOJ, telling them all about what a threat to your national security TikTok supposedly is! And do you know what that bill says?”
“Of course,” I confirmed. “ByteDance must divest in six months or TikTok will be banned from all digital devices in the United States of America.”
“And you Americans,” he fumed, taking his right index finger from behind his ear and wagging it pointedly at me, “call us an authoritarian police state!”
“Well Doctor,” I chided, “there are plenty of folks in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region who would probably concur, you know.”
“I’ll tell you what I know!” he barked, “I know they don’t know how well off they are! They should live in this country of yours, where the government wants to take away their best source of videos for new hip dances, lip syncs, fun skits, and cool stuff like clips of giant red-hot ball bearings being dropped into a bucket of mayonnaise, and awesome quick-easy eggplant air-fryer recipes using processed cheese!”
“In exchange,” I countered, “for every bit of personal information about them you can get off their precious mobile phones.”
“They don’t care!” he insisted. “Go and ask them if you like, ‘Hey, American teenager, you care if Xi Jinping knows your shoe size? You care if he knows how many condoms you buy?’ ‘Hell, no!’ they say! ‘Just gimme more TikTok stuff!’ You go ask them, that’s what they will tell you!”
“Because you’ve brainwashed them all with TikTok,” I posited, “and brainwashed them so well, in fact, that when TikTok told them to, they got on their precious smart phones and started calling members of Congress, threatening to assassinate their Senators and Representatives if the US government took their TikTok away. Now, that’s what I call brainwashed, in genuine Manchurian Candidate style.”
“So what?” he replied with an indifferent air. “They like being brainwashed by TikTok. It makes them feel good.”
“But isn’t TikTok strongly regulated in China?” I pointed out. “Your government doesn’t allow the kind of content, incentives for promiscuous addictive use, or blatant exploitation the American version of TikTok does. So tell me, doesn’t that double standard illustrate that China knows how dangerous something like TikTok can be for young people – you make sure it never gets used that way on your own children, and then encourage all its bad aspects to make huge profits on ours. Then you call us hypocrites for wanting to do something about it. How stupid do you think Americans are, anyway?”
“Stupid enough to let your kids have smart phones before they’re old enough to ride a bicycle!” he japed. “Is it China’s fault you are a nation of bad parents?”
He took a deep breath. “No, don’t answer that. We’re not here to talk about that. The Peoples Republic of China is paying you for solutions, not Socratic debates. How does China save TikTok?”
“All right,” I relented, “Let’s get started, then. TikTok’s opponents made sure to hold a secret briefing for the two most influential Senate committees concerned with the TikTok ban issue, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” he agreed, furiously rubbing his ear and blinking like a strobe light, “they sure as hell did!”
“So,” I suggested, “why not have a secret TikTok briefing of your own?”
He stopped blinking. His right hand moved to his attaché case, extracting an iPad, upon which he began to write in Chinese with a stylus. “What… kind of secret briefing?”
“Arrange a top-secret meeting between the NSA and Chinese Intelligence services,” I proposed, “where the Chinese will brief the NSA representatives on exactly how much information the Communist Chinese have collected on Americans with TikTok.”
He stopped writing and looked me over carefully. “Why?” he asked.
“Because the NSA knows what the CIA, FBI, DNI and DOJ think they know TikTok has on Americans who use it,” I explained, “but your Ministry of State Security knows what China really has on them, and I’m pretty sure there’s a significant delta.”
Squaring his shoulders up, he paused for a moment, then spoke. “I can’t comment on that,” he brusquely stated. “It would be espionage.”
“Of course not,” I agreed. “And to tell the truth, I have no interest in knowing what either side has on the poor benighted fools who use TikTok. So I’ll leave it up to you to assess what the difference will be when the NSA compares what China actually has on American TikTok-ers and what the CIA, FBI, DNI and DOJ think China has on them. You probably know already, though, so ask yourself, would the NSA be impressed with all the stuff you guys know about our citizens who use TikTok that our guys don’t? If so, then after the NSA gets the idea, offer them a data sharing agreement in exchange for continued Chinese control of TikTok.”
“Why would the NSA do that?” he inquired suspiciously.
“Because,” I informed him, “although Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act permits the US government to engage in mass, warrantless surveillance of Americans, the NSA only wishes they had a tool like TikTok to do it with. Offer them that, and I guarantee, they will pull the necessary strings to make sure that bill dies long before it reaches Joe Biden’s Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.”
“Strings?” my client’s eyes narrowed as he leaned forward and gave me an unblinking stare.
“Let’s just say,” I quietly confided, “that Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act doesn’t exclude members of the Senate.”
A moment passed as he considered my statement. “Ah, yes,” Dr. Zǒugǒu Gòngchǎn nodded and broke into a broad smile. “Do you suppose the NSA might be willing to… reciprocate with some information of such a nature?”
“Unfortunately,” I advised him, “no. That, you see, would be espionage.”
He stroked his chin contemplatively. “Seems as though your recommendation might be worth a try.”
“You bet it is,” I needled. “As a matter of fact, I bet you the fee for this consultation. If you implement my suggested solution within the next forty-eight hours and it fails, no charge.”
Dr. Zǒugǒu cocked his head to the side and considered my offer with a slight squint. “Okay, it’s deal,” he declared at last, tossing his iPad into the attaché case, briskly snapping it shut. Rising from the couch, he extended his hand. “Let’s shake on it.”