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- Tensions between the US and China are rising.
- The CEO of Chinese-owned TikTok will head to Washington in March to face a grilling from politicians.
- The showdown is symbolic of everything the US fears about China.
When TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew turns up on Capitol Hill in March, he risks exacerbating tensions over not only safety on the much-loved video app but broader geopolitics.
The US is increasingly and vocally concerned by China’s hawkish stance on Taiwan, as well as its increased economic might. A US Air Force general, citing Taiwan, predicted that war could break out between the US and China as soon as 2025, per a memo sent Friday and seen by NBC News. A defense department official told the publication this didn’t represent the government’s view.
So when 40-year-old Singaporean Chew heads to Washington on March 23 to be grilled by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, there’s more at stake than the fun app that’s wildly popular with America’s teens.
Shou Zi Chew and Vivian Kao attend The 2022 Met Gala.
TikTok is the second most popular app among American teens, according to 2022 data from Pew, which found 95% of teens it surveyed spend time on YouTube, followed by 67% on TikTok. Other popular apps include Instagram, Twitch, and Snapchat — but TikTok is notably the only non-US app on the list.
And that’s another source of tension: it’s a glimpse into an alternative future internet that isn’t dominated by the US and, consequently, US norms around freedom and security. It’s why the US has also moved against Chinese telecoms firm Huawei and banned exports to other Chinese firms. In simplistic terms, China’s success here feels like an indictment of America’s values.
TikTok’s big problem: its ownership
As it stands, TikTok is ultimately owned by Beijing-headquartered ByteDance, one of several internet giants that has risen out of China over the last decade.
Unlike their US counterparts, China’s tech firms receive stricter oversight from President Xi Jinping’s regime — note how many Chinese tech founders have stepped away from the day-to-day running of their businesses under government pressure.
The Chinese government, which took a stake in ByteDance’s domestic unit in 2021, has followed up by taking so-called “golden shares” in others like Alibaba and Tencent. This gives them certain privileges and rights to board seats, the Financial Times reported.
“The worries about Chinese influence through the parent company are harder to put to bed,” Jamie MacEwan, senior media analyst at Enders Analysis, told Insider.
The TikTok CEO will, accordingly, have to answer security concerns — first raised by Donald Trump — about whether the app sends data on Americans back to China, where the line between a citizen’s privacy and government spying is blurred.
The firm knows its roots are a problem, and has offered concessions — like additional US oversight — to try and avoid sanctions or an outright ban.
“So long as ByteDance is the owner, it will be difficult to convince politicians that managers in Beijing are not exercising undue operational control, or accessing sensitive data, whatever internal measures have been put in place,” added MacEwan.
In December, TikTok admitted its app was used by ByteDance staff in both the US and China to access personal data, such as IP addresses, of individuals including journalists to track their whereabouts and determine how they were accessing internal information.
It’s a terrible admission for a company that is trying to position itself as a protector of user privacy, and speaks to US fears of a cavalier attitude towards democratic freedoms. Senators responded with outrage, and will no doubt grill .
“The worry for TikTok is if bipartisan momentum can be sustained in Congress: that would be more dangerous for the app than Trump’s volley of executive orders in 2020, which were rushed and straightforward to overturn on legal grounds,” MacEwan said.
Chew will publicly need to persuade US lawmakers that TikTok and ByteDance can take steps to keep users safe — while his remarks will simultaneously almost certainly be closely watched in China. His March appearance won’t just be about justifying the app and its underlying business — it’ll be an act of diplomacy.