By Alex Willemyns
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on Thursday denied the popular social media app has links to the Chinese Communist Party, dismissing even the notion that its Beijing-based parent ByteDance is a Chinese company and arguing that it has no oversight over the app.
Chew was appearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in long-awaited testimony that was first announced Jan. 30, and which arrived after months of bipartisan and White House support for legislation to ban TikTok on national security grounds.
Testifying to the committee, Chew, who lives in Singapore, described TikTok as “a private company” that operates without oversight from its China-based parent, which he argued should not be characterized as a Chinese company but rather as “a company that is now global.”
“ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government,” he said in his opening remarks. “It’s a private company: 60% of the company is owned by global institutional investors, 20% is owned by the founder and 20% owned by employees around the world.”
The committee members accused the TikTok CEO of being disingenuous in trying to draw a distinction between his company and its parent, and queried how ByteDance could skirt strict Chinese legal requirements to provide requested data to Chinese authorities.
Chew, in turn, repeatedly referred back to TikTok’s “Project Texas,” an ongoing effort to move data on its 150 million U.S.-based users to servers on American soil, which he said could be audited and put to rest concerns that ByteDance or Beijing can access the data.
“All protected U.S. data will be under the protection of U.S. law and under the control of the U.S.-led security team,” Chew said. “This eliminates the concern that some of you have shared with me that TikTok user data can be subject to Chinese law. This goes further, by the way, than what any other company in our industry has done.”
But lawmakers from both parties said they did not trust such assurances, and pointed out TikTok had in the past been caught lying about collecting keystroke data and “spying” on journalists.
They also noted that Chew had previously served as chief financial officer of ByteDance between March and November 2021 and was appointed as the chief executive officer of TikTok in April 2021, briefly serving in the two roles across the companies simultaneously.
During his five-hour testimony, the CEO repeatedly fended off claims TikTok was not honest about its links back to mainland China.
Rep. Janice Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, noted a BuzzFeed article from September 2021 quoting an anonymous former U.S.-based TikTok employee saying that “everything is seen in China.” Chew said “he disagreed with the statement,” and argued that Project Texas, when implemented, would in any case prevent that happening.
But few lawmakers were convinced.
Rep. Bill Johnson, a Republican from Ohio, said his background in information technology led him to believe TikTok would always be able to skirt auditing of U.S.-based servers, and that ByteDance would be able to interface with TikTok’s servers without leaving a trace.
“TikTok’s source code is riddled with backdoors and CCP censorship devices. Here’s the truth: In a million lines of code, the smallest shift from a zero to a one … will unlock explicit CCP censorship,” he said.
Rep. Jay Obernolte, a Republican from California, said he, too, did not believe it was “technically possible to accomplish what Tiktok says it will accomplish through Project Texas” due to the ease at which engineers, he argued, could insert hard-to-detect “backdoors.”
He also raised a leaked dossier from TikTok obtained by technology news website Gizmodo last year that tells company officials in public hearings to, among other things, “downplay the parent company ByteDance, downplay the China association, [and] downplay AI.”
Chew found few sympathizers on the committee during his testimony, with committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington state, setting the tone for proceedings with her bluntness.
“TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned,” McMorris Rodgers said, arguing that “ByteDance is beholden to the CCP, and ByteDance and TikTok are one in the same.”
She described TikTok’s popularity – it’s the fifth-most downloaded free app on Apple’s App Store and the third-most popular in Google’s Play App Store – as worse than “allowing the Soviet Union the power to produce Saturday morning cartoons during the Cold War.”
When lawmakers weren’t focussed on the national security implications of Beijing surveilling 150 million Americans, they were excoriating Chew for content they said harmed teenagers by promoting car theft, suicide and body-image problems and would be banned in China.
“The Chinese Communist Party is engaged in psychological warfare through Tik Tok,” said Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican from Georgia, before listing viral “challenges” on the app, including the milk-crate challenge, the blackout challenge, the “NyQuil chicken” challenge, the Benadryl challenge and the “Dragon’s Breath liquid nitrogen trend.”
Chew said he was dismayed by reports of teenagers dying due to TikTok trends, but said content moderation was always improving and “the majority of people on the platform get a good experience.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said of the deaths.
Yet the majority of the hearing was spent cross-examining Chew’s claims that TikTok is independent of ByteDance, and that ByteDance is able to operate independently in China as a private company.
“I’m one that doesn’t believe that there is really a private sector in China,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California, pointing to article 7 and 10 of China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which compel secretive cooperation with Chinese intelligence agencies.
“So I think that there is a real problem relative to our national security about the protection of user data,” Shoo said. She added it was therefore hard to believe any pledges Chew made about siloing U.S. data: “The Chinese government is not going to give that up.”
Many members also noted a Wall Street Journal article published hours before the hearing that quoted Chinese Commerce Ministry spokeswoman Shu Jueting saying Beijing would oppose a proposal from the Biden administration for TikTok to be sold to U.S. owners.
That demonstrated, lawmakers argued, that the Chinese government itself believed it has an element of control over TikTok, even if Chew did not acknowledge that. “I do disagree with that characterization,” Chew responded, declining to comment further on the claim.
“I cannot speak on behalf of a Chinese government official,” he said.
But Chew did acknowledge he was in recent contact with ByteDance, after being asked by Rep. Michael Burgess, a Republican from Texas, if he had talked with TikTok’s parent company about how to testify.
“Congressman, this is a very high profile hearing. My phone is full of well-wishers,” Chew replied, adding that “a lot of people around the world were sending me wishes and unsolicited advice.”
Burgess then asked Chew if “attorneys representing ByteDance” were also representing TikTok. “Yes, I believe so,” he replied.
During the hearing, PEN America, a group that advocates for freedom of speech, also released a statement with a dozen other rights groups calling on Congress not to ban TikTok, which it said “would have serious consequences for free expression in the digital sphere.”
A group of TikTok users also held a press conference on Wednesday evening outside the Capitol calling for Congress to end its campaign to ban TikTok, led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York, who said TikTok was no worse than American-owned social media.
“Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok?” Bowman said at the event. “It poses about the same threat that companies like Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and Twitter pose.”
But it was the alleged control of China’s government over TikTok that occupied the minds of most lawmakers on the energy and commerce committee on Thursday, with nearly all appearing convinced that ultimate control over TikTok’s U.S. operations lies in Beijing.
Chew was firm, though, when asked directly if TikTok was censoring, on Beijing’s behalf, any content about issues like China’s genocide of the Uyghur ethnic minority or the 1989 Tiannanmen Square massacre.
“We do not remove that kind of content,” he said. “That kind of content is available on our platform. You can go and search it.”
In the end, few of the committee members were swayed. “Quite frankly,” said Rep. Linda Blunt Rochester, a Democrat from Delaware, “your testimony has raised more questions for me than answers.”
Edited by Malcolm Foster.