TikTok’s chief executive told US lawmakers that the viral video app would be kept “free from any manipulation by any government”, as he tried to head off a potential ban in the US.
Shou Zi Chew faced bruising questioning in Congress on Thursday over the social media app’s links to its Chinese parent company ByteDance. Earlier in the day, the Chinese government said it “firmly opposes” any attempt to force a sale of TikTok.
Chew attempted to assuage bipartisan concern that the ByteDance-owned platform could be used by the Chinese Communist party for espionage or propaganda purposes.
“It is our commitment to this committee and all our users that we will keep this free from any manipulation by any government,” Chew told the House of Representatives energy and commerce committee.
But the TikTok chief came under immediate attack from US legislators. In her opening statement, Republican committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers said: “We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values.”
She added: “TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned.”
The grilling, which also included accusations that the app was unsafe for children and did not have adequate moderation processes, comes at a critical moment.
ByteDance has been asked by US authorities to sell its stake in the US arm in order to distance it from Beijing — despite spending about $2bn on a partnership with Oracle designed to safeguard data and content from its 150mn American users from Chinese influence.
Before the hearing, the Chinese commerce ministry said: “Forcing the sale of TikTok will seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including from China, on investing in the United States.” It added: “China firmly opposes it.”
That intervention will complicate TikTok’s attempt to portray itself as an international group with limited ties to China. Beijing has installed a Communist party official as a director at ByteDance’s main Chinese entity, which developed the TikTok algorithm, who has the right to vote on any spin-off or divestiture.
Chew conceded that in the past, employees at Beijing-based ByteDance were subject to Chinese law that would have compelled them to co-operate with state intelligence work, but said that the Oracle partnership known as
Project Texas would create a firewall, meaning that was no longer the case for TikTok staff.
“Our commitment is to move data into the United States to be stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel,” Chew said. “So the risk will be similar to any government going to an American company asking for data.”
Nevertheless, Chew, a former Goldman Sachs banker who opened his testimony by emphasising that he was from Singapore and had a US-born wife, faced scepticism from lawmakers over Project Texas and accusations that the company was deliberately downplaying its China links.
Representative Frank Pallone, the panel’s top Democrat: said “I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you’re doing. So this idea, this Project Texas, is simply not acceptable.”
Ahead of the hearing, TikTok has made a frantic public relations push. This has included inviting to Washington certain creators, many of whom make livelihoods advertising on behalf of brands to their large followings on the platform, to help lobby politicians against a ban, according to a report by The Information that TikTok later confirmed.
On Wednesday, more than 20 creators held a press conference on the Capitol grounds with Jamaal Bowman, a Democratic House member, to protest against any ban. The New York representative has emerged as one of the platform’s few allies on Capitol Hill.
Surrounded by influencers holding signs with slogans such as “Keep TikTok” and “My small business thrives on TikTok”, Bowman said Republicans had created “a Red Scare around China”. He said “it poses about the same threat that companies like Facebook and Instagram, and YouTube and Twitter, pose.”
Nevertheless, TikTok’s critics remained sceptical before the hearing.
“While I appreciate Mr Chew’s willingness to answer questions before Congress, TikTok’s lack of transparency, repeated obfuscations, and misstatements of fact have severely undermined the credibility of any statements by TikTok employees, including Mr Chew,” said Mark Warner, a Democrat who chairs the Senate select committee on intelligence.
Warner is one of the lead sponsors of a new White House-backed bill that would give the administration new powers to ban Chinese apps that pose security threats, including TikTok.