Nepal’s TikTok ban: Navigating the domestic and geopolitical tightrope

Nepal’s recent ban on TikTok was a result of both societal and political concerns, says Indian academic Rishi Gupta. In the aftermath, will there be ripple effects on Nepal's relations with China?
A protestor holds a placard as he takes part in a protest against the ban on TikTok in Kathmandu, Nepal, on 18 November 2023. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)
A protestor holds a placard as he takes part in a protest against the ban on TikTok in Kathmandu, Nepal, on 18 November 2023. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

On 13 November, the Nepal government announced that it would be banning the short-form video-sharing platform, TikTok. In a press statement, the government spokesperson stated, “TikTok continues to disrupt social harmony, affecting family and social structures. Hence, the cabinet decided to ban TikTok immediately.” The spokesperson added that TikTok has been used for criminal activities. Since then, TikTok users in Nepal have protested against the move.

The government’s decision has drawn mixed reactions in the public sphere in Nepal. Some see it as a social media tool that opens new gateways for digital content creators and helps to empower marginalised communities to raise their voices. At the same time, there are strong voices against TikTok, alleging that it is a nuisance to public order. 

While the TikTok ban has domestic implications, Nepal is also faced with a potential diplomatic fallout with China since TikTok is a Chinese-owned platform. So far, China has not responded to the Nepal government’s decision to ban TikTok, but Beijing may yet do so, as it has strongly reacted to such bans by more than ten countries in the past. 

In June 2020, India banned TikTok following a military clash between the two armies high in the Himalayas. Other than India, countries that have banned TikTok fully or partially include Afghanistan, Belgium, Indonesia, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand and Norway. However, the TikTok ban in India was a major setback as it was a significant market with a large user base, causing an estimated US$6 billion loss for ByteDance — the parent company of TikTok. 

While TikTok is not the only or most popular platform posing a threat, the security establishment in Nepal has been vocal about TikTok possibly making a data breach.

TikTok users left in disarray 

While Nepal does not have a large user base like India, it still has a substantial reported user base of around 2.2 million, consuming 40% of the total internet bandwidth in the country. Surprisingly, there has been an estimated 20% rise in internet traffic following the TikTok ban due to users downloading Virtual Private Network (VPN) services to bypass the ban. The ban on TikTok has been challenged with ten writ petitions filed with Nepal’s Supreme Court

A Chinese flag and TikTok logo are seen in this illustration taken 2 June 2023. (Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters)
A Chinese flag and TikTok logo are seen in this illustration taken on 2 June 2023. (Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters)

The government is unlikely to revoke the ban. It may present a strong defence in the court, citing the Directives of the Operation of Social Networking 2023 passed by Nepal’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology on 9 November. The new directives require social media companies to follow credible legal structures in the country. While TikTok does not have a staff presence or data centre in Nepal, the ban could be taken in this context.

Such directives have been introduced following Nepal’s rising internet and social media users. In 2022, the BBC report Media Usage in Nepal said that out of the 63% of people who were internet users, over 90% of them used social media. Also, among the various social media platforms, YouTube was the most popular social media platform, and this was closely followed by Facebook. The report noted: “TikTok is becoming increasingly popular, especially amongst younger groups and is the third most used platform nationally.” Therefore, the ban looks set to see a legal battle in the court of law. 

While TikTok is not the only or most popular platform posing a threat, the security establishment in Nepal has been vocal about TikTok possibly making a data breach. While they do not want to make such statements on record to annoy China, this approach largely aligns with similar concerns raised by India, the US, Indonesia and other countries. 

The entrance of TikTok has substantially contributed to the boom of small and medium businesses in Nepal...

Popular platform that could shape political agendas

TikTok quickly caught on in Nepal when it was launched in 2017, and led to the steady rise of TikTok influencers. The entrance of TikTok has substantially contributed to the boom of small and medium businesses in Nepal, as TikTok influencers often endorse products — a mechanism that remains unregulated financially. At the same time, governments across the globe have raised issues like TikTok being used as a platform for criminal activities, promoting adult content, users causing damage to public properties, and influencing voter behaviour. 

For instance, Taiwan is headed for the presidential elections in January 2024, and the current ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) worries that the pro-China Kuomintang Party (KMT) may benefit from pro-KMT candidates using social media algorithms to shape voting behaviour. Similarly, TikTok, which has become a popular platform in Nepal, has been accused of being used to promote political agendas. 

In 2020, then Prime Minister of Nepal KP Sharma Oli officially joined TikTok and since then has received criticism as well as praise for the content he has uploaded. This move was seen as a significant shift in Oli’s personal stance against social media platforms for “inviting instability through the dissemination of content against the course of recent achievements”. KP Oli’s shift towards supporting social media was driven by the medium’s popularity, which showed results in the 2022 parliamentary elections. 

... TikTok has gained popularity across the political spectrum in Nepal. 

People watch as devotees prepare to sacrifice a goat during the celebrations on the ninth day of the Hindu Dashain Festival that marks the triumph of good over evil, in Kathmandu, Nepal on 23 October 2023. (Prakash Mathema/AFP)
People watch as devotees prepare to sacrifice a goat during the celebrations on the ninth day of the Hindu Dashain Festival that marks the triumph of good over evil, in Kathmandu, Nepal, on 23 October 2023. (Prakash Mathema/AFP)

For instance, a newbie party like the Rastriya Swatantra Party won 20 out of 275 seats in the elections despite contesting for the first time. The party had given tickets to young and educated candidates who could attract young voters on social media platforms, including TikTok. At the same time, a large Nepali diaspora worldwide was seen voicing support for the Swatantra Party candidates on TikTok. Undoubtedly, TikTok has gained popularity across the political spectrum in Nepal. 

Damaging the social fabric

Nepal has indicated that TikTok is causing “social disruptions” and damaging the social fabric of the Himalayan country. In 2019-2020, when I travelled across Nepal, I saw firsthand local authorities and security agencies raising concerns about the negative effects of TikTok, mainly in the way that the platform was being used for human trafficking. Also, there were notices plastered on the walls across Kathmandu Valley prohibiting TikTok users from recording videos, especially at religious sites. 

Nepal is largely a Hindu-majority country with a rich religious and cultural heritage. There are historical and religious sites across Nepal that are considered sacred by the believers. As a result, the authorities had to ban TikTok at such premises, including the famous Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. Often, TikTok user activities at these sites have been deemed disruptive or disrespectful. Farmers have also complained of crop damage by the TikTok users in the countryside, with some chalking up losses worth US$20,000 to individual farmers. 

... China may perceive the ban to be against its business and digital interests in Nepal.

Diplomatic fallout 

The TikTok ban comes amidst Nepal’s strained ties with its northern neighbour China. Since the formation of an alleged pro-India government in 2022, China has seen a number of projects in Nepal getting stalled, the biggest being the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has not moved an inch since its signing in May 2017. With the ban of TikTok, there are far-reaching implications in the bilateral ties. 

Participants holding placards take part in a protest against the ban on TikTok in Kathmandu, Nepal, 18 November 2023. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)
Participants holding placards take part in a protest against the ban on TikTok in Kathmandu, Nepal, 18 November 2023. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

As a close neighbour and an important economic partner of Nepal, China may perceive the ban to be against its business and digital interests in Nepal. China has been attempting to enter the internet sector to end India’s monopoly. In 2018, for instance, Nepal Telecom and China Telecom Global jointly launched internet services in several parts of Nepal. The TikTok ban may give Indian-owned platforms like MX TakaTak, Moj, and Josh — which had captured the Indian market after India banned TikTok in June 2020 — a leg up. No doubt, there may be back-channel discussions between China and Nepal to discuss the impact of the ban.

Ultimately, Nepal has a rising young population, with 28.88% falling into the 0-14-year category. With their interest in social media platforms and increasing popularity as influencers, the government of Nepal will have to delicately handle the criticism of the TikTok ban to avoid disruption.

Also, if the Supreme Court finds such bans to be against the free speech and fundamental rights of the people, the government might consider putting strict regulations on its uses. At the same time, China’s response will be crucial as it may have ripple effects on China-Nepal bilateral ties. 

Related: Which way Nepal is heading: China, India or the US | Banning TikTok: A 'China Crusade' has begun?