TikTok cybersecurity fears ‘nonsense’, says Chinese ambassador to Ireland

Cybersecurity fears over TikTok are “nonsense” and the Irish Government is succumbing to American and European “fever”, the Chinese ambassador to Ireland has said.

Ambassador He Xiangdong said he believes some politicians here think China is using Chinese telecommunication equipment to spy on other countries, but insisted that this has never happened.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner, he also said recent comments made by Tánaiste Micheál Martin could “damage” the trade and economic relationship between the two countries.

Earlier this year, the Fianna Fáil leader said the Government and private sector need to be “realistic” and “clear-eyed” about China’s strategic objectives and their implications for Ireland. He also said the private sector and academia need to assess their relationship with China and areas where they may need to “de-risk”.

In April this year, and following similar moves in Europe, the US, Britain and Canada, the National Cyber Security Centre advised staff at Government departments and agencies to remove TikTok from their official devices, following a detailed risk review. 

Separately, TikTok was fined €345m in September by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner for failing to protect children’s privacy. It has since launched a High Court challenge aimed at quashing the decision. 

Cybersecurity fears ‘nonsense’

Meanwhile, cyber security laws commenced by minister of State Ossian Smyth earlier this year sought to exclude “high-risk” vendors, with the language later toned down to read “relevant” vendors after the IDA — on behalf of Huawei — and Mr He, objected. 

Mr He said: “The cybersecurity fear over Chinese equipment, including Huawei and TikTok, I think that is nonsense.

“Because the so-called cybersecurity threat from Chinese technology and equipment, first exaggerated, manipulated, exaggerated by the Americans and some people in the UK and Europe.” 

He said the cybersecurity threat is “tremendously overexaggerated” and any issues regarding data protection are technical matters which need to be solved by scientists.

He Xiangdong said that singling out any Chinese company was 'totally unfair'. Picture: Moya Nolan
He Xiangdong said that singling out any Chinese company was ‘totally unfair’. Picture: Moya Nolan

When put to him that it was the State’s own expert advice regarding TikTok, and not influenced by similar decisions made in the US or UK, Mr He said he did not know why such advice was given, adding: “So maybe one of the answers is American-fever or European-fever.” 

He said singling out any Chinese company was “totally unfair” and a “tactic” used by some countries to seek unfair competitive advantage over Chinese-owned companies. 

“The US government are trying to compete very fiercely with China,” he said.

He said that in recent times he has noticed people in Leinster House “talking about restriction or screening” of foreign direct investment here, including Chinese companies.

Trade relationship ‘heaven’ for Ireland

He said he hopes the Government continues to provide a “fair and transparent” business environment for Chinese companies and treat them “as equal as you treat any other foreign investment.” 

Mr He said he was confused to hear the Tánaiste speaking about “de-risking” with China, adding he was trying to figure out what the risks are. 

He pointed out that the trade between the two countries is in favour of Ireland, and that more than 5,000 Chinese students living in Ireland contribute around €40,000 per person every year to the economy.

“So, when I heard ‘de-risking’ words and phrases here in Ireland, I’m quite confused, because I don’t see any risk,” he said. 

What I see is opportunity in the past, in the now and in the future.”

In response to Mr Martin’s comments earlier this year, the embassy said the remarks “risk a brighter future” for the relationship between the two countries. When asked what he meant by this, Mr He said it would not be retaliation, but it would damage co-operation.

“But I would say that if you look at everything as of now, what you have is just heaven,” he said. 

“If you look at everything about the relationship and trade and economic relationship and mutual investment co-operation in the negative way, it definitely will hamper or even damage the co-operation.”

He said the belief that China is engaged in espionage via tech companies is “based on misinformation”.

“I do hope that, with communication, we can have a better mutual understanding on a lot of issues, including this issue,” he said.

“I would say that [the] Chinese company or Chinese government has never spied on other countries, say to monitor the telephone conversation of the heads of the other governments here in Europe, and we never use the Chinese telecommunication equipment to spy on other countries.”

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