Many people must be puzzled. What’s the point of international sanctions? Why should the Chinese owners of TikTok or WeChat obey sanctions imposed by the US government? Chinese nationals are not bound to obey American laws and decrees. Here’s the thing: US government’s sanctions are obeyed because they order AMERICANS to stop dealing with the foreign entities officially targeted. The sanctions are perhaps not officially directed towards Americans but it is only because they indirectly target them that they are obeyed; if anybody is prosecuted and goes to jail, it will be Americans.

I explained that in a previous post: “American Sanctions: Why Foreigners Obey,” Econlog, October 1, 2019). The cases of TkiTok and WeChat provide as clear a confirmation as possible. The Wall Street Journal (“Trump Executive Orders Target TikTok, WeChat Apps,” August 7, 2020) reports:

The orders bar people in the U.S. or subject to U.S. jurisdiction from transactions with the China-based owners of the apps, effective 45 days from Thursday. That raises the possibility that U.S. citizens would be prevented from downloading the apps in the Apple or Google app stores.

TikToc is reported to have more than 37,000,000 American users, mainly young people.

Sanction decrees are a bit like tariffs: they punish the nationals of the government that imposes them.