TikTok’s CEO gets grilled in Congress

Briefly: TikTok CEO Shou Chew appeared before a hostile US Congress on Thursday to answer questions about his company’s connections to Beijing. His appearance did little to calm US concerns that the popular short-form video app poses a threat to US national security.

Congress doesn’t agree on much. But Republicans and Democrats are in lockstep on two things: wariness towards Beijing, and a love of publicly dunking on political targets. Unfortunately for TikTok – the $220B tech giant owned by Chinese firm ByteDance – it sits right in the middle of that Venn diagram.

At the heart of US concern is a 2017 law in Beijing requiring “any organisation” to cooperate with the Chinese government. And these concerns aren’t entirely hypothetical. TikTok has previously:

Mr Chew faced some direct questioning on these issues. But testifying under oath, the Harvard-educated Singaporean didn’t always give direct answers:

  • Does ByteDance have access to TikTok’s US user data? “I’ve seen no evidence”, Chew answered. 
  • Is TikTok a Chinese company? “That’s not how we see it”, Chew responded.

But as it turns out, that’s exactly how the Chinese government sees it: last week, Beijing announced it would oppose any forced sale of TikTok to a US buyer.

The other possible outcome is that the US will ban TikTok. But that comes with its own challenges, including the fact that plenty of TikTok’s 150 million US users will come of (voting) age before election day in November 2024.

Intrigue’s take: Mr Chew tried valiantly to distance TikTok from the fractious US-China relationship by emphasising the firm’s multinational executive team, its Singapore and Los Angeles HQ, and its majority ownership by global investors.

But in a hearing about TikTok’s connections with Beijing, Mr Chew still came across as a CEO who doesn’t have final say in his own company. So one way or another, it’s hard to see TikTok surviving Washington’s politics unscathed.

Also worth noting:

  • TikTok’s CEO published an upbeat video after the hearing, generating millions of views and 176,000 mostly positive comments.
  • TikTok users took aim at Congress after the hearing, variously describing it as “embarrassing” and “out of touch”.
  • A secretive US regulator released an unusual statement while the hearing was underway, emphasising its power to block transactions with unresolved national security concerns.
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