san francisco “We are not under the Chinese Communist Party,” Shou Zi Chew said. Again and again he tried to appease, again and again he was interrupted Thursday in a hearing before the Commerce Committee of the US House of Representatives.
“Their platform stands for surveillance and manipulation. It should be banned,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers told him bluntly. With rare unity, representatives of both political camps in the USA condemn the Tiktok video service.
For five and a half hours, Chew tried to calm the worries. However, the 40-year-old also admitted that employees in China currently have access to data from customers in the USA. And he also acknowledged that employees in China specifically spied on the accounts of journalists in the United States. “This shouldn’t have happened,” Chew said.
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Before the US Congress, the bosses of large US tech companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook had to put up with critical questions. But it was the first time the chairman of a global digital platform with Chinese origins had to face a critical question and answer session.
There’s a lot at stake for Chew. In Washington, he revealed that with around 150 million active users in the USA, almost every second American uses the platform.
Tech prodigy with a Harvard degree
The Singapore-born manager is an exceptional talent on the Chinese technology scene. He is not only well connected in China. He also knows the USA very well, studied at Harvard University and also met his wife there.
Unlike many CEOs of Chinese companies, he is used to speaking in front of an international audience. The heads of Alibaba or Tencent would have big problems if they were to pass an interrogation before the US Congress just by using the language alone. In Europe, Chew met several regulators and tried to rally supporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He’s on a global charm offensive.
The Handelsblatt met Chew several times: when he was in Beijing for the investment company DST Global Deals in the technology scene and raised money for a then largely unknown tech company called Bytedance. Today, Bytedance is the parent company of Tiktok.
In 2020, the Handelsblatt met Chew in Düsseldorf for an interview. At that time he led the global expansion of the Chinese technology group Xiaomi. From Düsseldorf, Chew wanted to conquer all of Europe with smartphones, smart air filters and fitness bands. At the time, he benefited from the fact that rival Huawei was massively losing market share in Europe due to US sanctions. Chew said, “We believe in free markets and the value we bring to customers around the world.”
Dependence on China cannot be eliminated
Today Chew has an impossible job. Tiktok is the most successful Chinese network in the world. Never before has a digital platform from China managed to attract so many users in the USA or Europe. At the same time, Tiktok is highly controversial. Chinese laws force companies in the People’s Republic to cooperate with Chinese security authorities. And Tiktok emerged from the Chinese Bytedance group. This dependency cannot be resolved.
“We meet the highest standards of data protection,” Chew promised before the US Congress. In the future, all data from US users would only be stored on servers in the USA operated by the US group Oracle. “That puts them out of China’s reach,” Chew said.
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However, the Tiktok boss received little understanding. “Everything you’ve said so far hasn’t reassured me. And I think, frankly, your testimony left me with more questions than answers,” said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Delaware Democrat.
Financial analysts’ assessments of Chew’s performance were also not good. “We would describe today’s statement from TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew as a catastrophe moment,” said Wedbush analyst Dan Ives. The interrogation will make a ban or forced sale of Tiktok in the US more likely. “I don’t think he made any new friends today,” said Matthew Schettenhelm, senior litigation analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.
Ultimately, as CEO, Chew could be forced to step away from the US market. Former US President Donald Trump had already pushed for a sale of the Tiktok US business. But there are hardly any potential buyers. Microsoft and Oracle are considered candidates. But the authorities in Beijing have already signaled that they would block a forced sale. Chew could soon be facing the next interrogation.
More: Tiktok boss admits to US Congress: Chinese developers have access to US user data.