TikTok’s chief executive has told hostile US legislators that the viral-video app will be kept “free from any manipulation by any government”, as he struggled to head off a potential US ban.
Shou Zi Chew received a bipartisan pummelling from a congressional committee on Thursday that threatened to ban the Chinese-owned app, calling it a “cancer” and tool of surveillance.
TikTok has become a flashpoint in rising tensions between the US and China, uniting Republicans and Democrats in Washington who are concerned that it could be used to steal sensitive US data.
Before the hearing, China’s commerce ministry hit out at a US demand that the US arm of TikTok should be separated from its Chinese owners.
“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 said, adding that it would “firmly” oppose such a move.
In a series of tense exchanges on Capitol Hill over five hours, Chew attempted to address concern over the social media app’s links to its Chinese parent company ByteDance but met a sceptical audience.
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values,” said the Republican chair of the House energy and commerce committee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned.”
TikTok has taken measures to respond to the US concerns, spending about $2bn on a partnership with Oracle designed to safeguard data and content from its 150mn American users from Chinese influence.
“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.”
But Chew faced overt suspicion from politicians. “I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you’re doing,” said Frank Pallone, the panel’s top Democrat.
In addition to concerns about national security, legislators also claimed that the app did not have adequate moderation processes and was unsafe for children, described by one as a “cancer, like fentanyl, another China export, that causes addiction and death”.
The hearing comes at a critical moment for TikTok. This month, Senate Democrats and Republicans introduced a White House-backed bill that would give the administration powers to ban Chinese apps that pose security threats, including TikTok.
Mark Warner, the Democratic chair of the Senate select committee on intelligence who was one of the lead sponsors of the bill, said after the hearing that Chew had said “nothing” to assuage fears that TikTok was at the behest of the Chinese Communist party.
Rogers responded to the Chinese commerce ministry’s statement, telling Chew he had “zero confidence” that ByteDance and TikTok were not “beholden” to the Chinese Communist party. “The CCP believes they have the final say over your company.”
Chew, a former Goldman Sachs banker, emphasised that he was from Singapore and had a US-born wife. He 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.
However, he added that its partnership with Oracle, known as Project Texas, would create a firewall, meaning that was no longer the case for TikTok staff.
In one exchange, Chew evaded commenting on whether he believed that the Chinese government had persecuted the Uyghur Muslim population, as has been alleged by the UN, prompting the committee’s vice-chair, Kelly Armstrong, to accuse him of “absolutely [tying himself] in knots to avoid criticising” the Communist party.
Chew, appearing increasingly exhausted by the questioning, quibbled with the characterisation by legislators of the recent news that TikTok had inappropriately obtained the data of US journalists, as well as a Financial Times reporter, as “spying”.
Ahead of the hearing, TikTok has made a frantic public relations push, including 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.
In the wake of the of hearing, TikTok said in a statement: “Shou came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already under way through Project Texas or productively address industry-wide issues of youth safety.”
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington