Tech Official Pushing TikTok Ban Could Reap Windfall From U.S.–China Cold War

Among the many hawks on Capitol Hill, few have as effectively frightened lawmakers over Chinese control of TikTok as Jacob Helberg, a member of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission. Helberg’s day job at the military contractor Palantir, however, means he stands to benefit from ever-frostier relations between the two countries.

Helberg has been instrumental in the renewed legislative fight against TikTok, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Spearheading the effort to create the bipartisan, bicoastal alliance of China hawks is Jacob Helberg,” the Journal reported in March 2023. The paper noted collaboration between Helberg, previously a policy adviser at Google, and investor and fellow outspoken China hawk Peter Thiel, as well as others in Thiel’s circle. The anti-China coalition, the Journal reported this past week, has been hammering away at a TikTok ban, and Helberg said he has spoken to over 100 members of Congress about the video-sharing social media app.

From his position on the U.S.–China commission — founded by Congress to advise it on national security threats represented by China — Helberg’s rhetoric around TikTok has been as jingoistic as any politician. “TikTok is a scourge attacking our children and our social fabric, a threat to our national security, and likely the most extensive intelligence operation a foreign power has ever conducted against the United States,” he said in a February hearing held by the commission.

Unlike those in government he’s supposed to be advising, however, Helberg has another gig: He is a policy adviser to Alex Karp, CEO of the defense and intelligence contractor Palantir. And Palantir, like its industry peers, could stand to profit from increased hostility between China and the United States. The issue has been noted by publications like Fortune, which noted in September 2023 that Palantir relies heavily on government contracts for AI work — a business that would grow in a tech arms race with China. (Neither the U.S.–China commission nor Palantir responded to requests for comment.)

“It is a clear conflict-of-interest to have an advisor to Palantir serve on a commission that is making sensitive recommendations.”

Experts told The Intercept that there didn’t appear to be a legal conflict that would exclude Helberg from the commission, but the participation of tech company officials could nonetheless create competing interests between sound policymaking and corporate profits.

“It is a clear conflict-of-interest to have an advisor to Palantir serve on a commission that is making sensitive recommendations about economic and security relations between the U.S. and China,” said Bill Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and scholar of the U.S. defense industry. “From their perspective, China is a mortal adversary and the only way to ‘beat’ them is to further subsidize the tech sector so we can rapidly build next generation systems that can overwhelm China in a potential conflict — to the financial benefit of Palantir and its Silicon Valley allies.”

Big Tech’s China Hawks

Helberg’s activities are part of a much broader constellation of anti-China advocacy orbiting around Peter Thiel, who co-founded Palantir in 2003 and is still invested in the company. (Helberg’s husband, the venture capitalist Keith Rabois, spent five years as a partner at Thiel’s Founders Fund). Thiel, also an early investor in Pentagon aerospace contractor SpaceX and weaponsmaker Anduril, has for years blasted the Chinese tech sector as inherently malignant — claims, like Helberg’s, made with more than trace amounts of paranoia and xenophobia.

Thiel’s remarks on China are characteristically outlandish. Speaking at the MAGA-leaning National Conservatism Conference in 2019, Thiel suggested, without evidence, that Google had been “infiltrated by Chinese intelligence” — and urged a joint CIA–FBI investigation. In 2021, at a virtual event held by the Richard Nixon Foundation, Thiel said, “I do wonder whether at this point, bitcoin should also be thought [of] in part as a Chinese financial weapon against the U.S.”

For Thiel’s camp, conflict with China is both inevitable and necessary. U.S.–China research cooperation on artificial intelligence, he says, is treacherous, and Chinese technology, generally, is anathema to national security. As he inveighs against Chinese tech, Thiel’s portfolio companies stand by with handy solutions. Palantir, for instance, began ramping up its own Made-in-the-USA militarized AI offerings last year. Anduril executives engage in routine fearmongering over China, all the while pitching their company’s weapons as just the thing to thwart an invasion of Taiwan. “Everything that we’re doing, what the [Department of Defense] is doing, is preparing for a conflict with a great power like China in the Pacific,” Anduril CEO Palmer Luckey told Bloomberg TV last year.

Palantir is making a similar pitch. In a 2023 quarterly earnings call, Palantir Chief Operations Officer Shyam Sankar told investors that the company had China in mind as it continues to grow its reach into the Western Pacific. On another Palantir earnings call, Karp, the company’s CEO and Helberg’s boss, told investors the more dangerous and real the Chinese threat gets, “the more battle-tested and real your software has to be. I believe it’s about to get very real. Why? Because our GDP growth is significantly better than China’s.” Even marketing images distributed by Palantir show the company’s software being used to track Chinese naval maneuvers in the South China Sea.

Thiel is not alone among Silicon Valley brass. At a February 2023 panel event, a representative of America’s Frontier Fund, a national security-oriented technology investment fund that pools private capital and federal dollars, said that a war between China and Taiwan would boost the firm’s profits by an order of magnitude. Private sector contributors to America’s Frontier Fund include both Thiel and former Google chair Eric Schmidt, whose China alarmism and defense-spending boosterism rivals Thiel’s — and who similarly stands to personally profit from escalations with China.

TikTok, Bad! China, Bad!

Repeated often enough, anti-TikTok rhetoric from tech luminaries serves to reinforce the notion that China is the enemy of the U.S. and that countering this enemy is worth the industry’s price tags — even if the app’s national security threat remains entirely hypothetical.

“Just like tech had to convince people that crypto and NFTs had intrinsic value, they also have to convince the Pentagon that the forms of warfare that their technologies make possible are intrinsically superior or fill a gap,” Shana Marshall, an arms industry scholar at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told The Intercept.

Marshall said bodies like the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission can contribute to such conflicts because advisory boards that encourage revolving-door moves between private firms and government help embed corporate interests in policymaking. “In other words,” she said, “it’s not a flaw in the program, it’s an intentional design element.”

“The tensions with China/Taiwan are tailor made for this argumentation,” Marshall added. “You couldn’t get better cases — or better timing — so grifters and warmongers like Helberg and Schmidt are going to be increasingly integrated into Pentagon planning and all aspects of regulation.”

Forcing divestiture or banning TikTok outright would not trigger armed conflict between the U.S. and China on its own, but the pending legislation to effectively ban the app is already dialing up hostility between the two countries. After the House’s overwhelming support last week of the bill to force the sale of the app from Chinese hands, the Financial Times reported that Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin accused the U.S. of displaying a “robber’s logic” through legislative expropriation. An editorial in the Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times decried the bill as little more than illegal “commercial plunder” and urged TikTok parent company ByteDance to not back down.

“There are a lot of defense contractors that are discussing the China threat with an eye out on their bottom line.”

Of course, self-interest is hardly a deviation from the norm in the military-industrial complex. “This is the way Washington works,” said Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group. “There are a lot of defense contractors that are discussing the China threat with an eye out on their bottom line.”

Although it’s common for governmental advisory boards like Helberg’s U.S.–China commission to enthusiastically court the private sector, Amey said it would be important for Helberg to make clear when making policy recommendations whether he’s speaking as an adviser to Palantir’s CEO or to Congress, though the disclosure wouldn’t negate Helberg’s personal interest in a second Cold War. Such disclosures have been uneven: While Helberg’s U.S.–China commission bio leads with his Palantir job, the company went unmentioned in the February hearing. Given the ongoing campaign to pass the TikTok bill, Helberg’s lobbying “certainly raises some red flags,” Amey said.

He said, “The industry is hawkish on China but has a financial interest in the decisions that the executive branch or Congress make.”

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