Lawmakers Blast TikTok’s C.E.O. for App’s Ties to China, Escalating Tensions

Lawmakers lambasted TikTok’s chief executive about the platform’s ties to China in a roughly five-hour hearing on Thursday, punctuating how the viral video app has become a central battleground as the United States and China tussle for political, technological and economic primacy.

Shou Chew, the chief executive of TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet giant ByteDance, was barraged with questions about the app’s relationship to its parent company and China’s potential influence over the platform. Republican and Democratic lawmakers repeatedly asked Mr. Chew if TikTok was spying on Americans on behalf of the Chinese government, cut him off midsentence and angrily demanded “yes” or “no” answers from him.

The hearing, a rare display of bipartisan unity that was harsher in tone than previous congressional hearings featuring American executives of social media companies, was complicated by Chinese authorities weighing in. Hours before Mr. Chew testedified, China’s commerce ministry said it opposed a sale of TikTok, in a public rebuke Biden of the administration, which has demanded the dive institute and threatened a possible US ban of the app.

That left Mr. Chew, 40, is in a difficult position as he struggled to cast TikTok as an independent company that wasn’t influenced by China. “ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government,” he said at one point, a response that visibly frustrated lawmakers. “It is a private company.”

The hearing and China’s statement cemented how TikTok has become a focal point of geopolitical tensions between the United States and China. President Biden and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, are both campaigning to bolster their own technology sectors and have disrupted trade to each other’s countries as suspicions between Washington and Beijing have mounted.

With the United States and China at odds over a TikTok sale, there are basically two paths for the app in the United States. The Biden administration could ban the app, which may run into a difficult court challenge, or it could revisit stalled negotiations for a technical fix to data security concerns.

But even as the White House considers those options, the striking bipartisan unity at Thursday’s hearing was a boon for President Biden as he takes a hard line against China. Nearly every policy he has pursued has been forcefully rejected by the Republicans, except for his tough position against China on trade, technology dominance, the Ukraine war and other matters.

“The future of TikTok in the US is definitely dimmer and more uncertain today than it was yesterday,” said Lindsay Gorman, head of technology and geopolitics at the German Marshall Fund and a former tech advisor for the Biden administration. “It’s not just one side of the aisle clamoring for TikTok to address these national security concerns, but this is now coming from all sides.”

To continue operating in the United States without changing its Chinese ownership, TikTok had proposed ways to protect American users by walling off their data, among other steps. But no security agreement had been reached and US intelligence officials had warned that the app might be an arm of the Chinese government that spies on Americans and spreads propaganda.

The stakes have risen in recent weeks, with the Biden administration pushing for TikTok to be sold off from its Chinese owners or face a possible ban on American soil. But China’s comments on Thursday against a sale narrows what the White House can potentially do to contain the app without escalating tensions, leading to acrimonious exchanges at the hearing with Mr. Chew.

It is rare for chief executives of foreign-owned companies to testify in Congress, with one of the last times being when Toyota’s president appeared in 2010 to discuss the recalls of millions of cars.

Over the past few years, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have increasingly coalesced around the growing animus against Chinese businesses in the United States, with government bans on exports to Chinese telecommunications companies and several bills aiming to limit TikTok and other technologies tied to hostile foreign governments. .

At the hearing, more than 50 lawmakers expressed deep skepticism of Mr. Chew’s defense. They portrayed TikTok as a danger to national security, accusing it of invading people’s privacy, harming the mental health of teenagers and leading to the deaths of some young people. August Pfluger, a Republican lawmaker from Texas, told Mr. Chew that the chief executive had inspired political unity that hadn’t been seen in three or four years.

“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values,” said Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican of Washington and the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which held the hearing. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned.”

In a statement, a TikTok spokeswoman said the hearing “was dominated by political grandstanding.”

Mr. Chew tried distancing TikTok from China, stressing that he was born in Singapore and that he lives there with his wife, who was born in Virginia, and two children. He emphasized early on that he attended business school in the United States.

But he acknowledged that he reports directly to ByteDance’s chief executive, Liang Rubo, and that some TikTok employees participate in ByteDance’s incentive plans for stock options.

Mr. Chew argued that banning TikTok would be a strike against free expression. The app serves many small businesses and creators and has 150 million US users and 7,000 employees in the country.

He also repeatedly pointed to efforts to protect the data of Americans. The company came up with a plan, Project Texas, to store the data of American users on domestic servers run by the Texas-based software giant, Oracle. He insisted that the data security program, which the Biden administration has rejected, would be the best way to protect consumers.

“The bottom line is this: American data is stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel,” Mr. Chew said.

Lawmakers remained skeptical. Several brought up China’s declaration that it would oppose TikTok’s sale, saying it was evidence of the country’s influence over the company. They cited reports of ByteDance’s surveillance of American journalists as proof of the company’s abuse of privacy and user security. In December, ByteDance said that its China-based employees had retrieved the sensitive data of US TikTok users, including reporters, to try to find who was leaking internal information to journalists.

“I’m not convinced that the benefits outweigh the risks that it poses to Americans in its present form,” Frank Pallone, the ranking Democrat of New Jersey, said of TikTok. “The combination of TikTok’s Beijing communist-based China ownership and its popularity exacerbates its danger to our country and to our privacy.”

Concerns over TikTok increased during the Trump administration. In 2020, President Donald J. Trump tried, unsuccessfully, to ban TikTok from Apple’s and Google’s app stores unless it was sold to an American buyer. A deal to sell stakes in the app to Oracle and Walmart never came together.

After the Biden administration came into office, it initially focused on negotiating the security deal that would allow TikTok to keep operating in the United States. That changed in recent weeks with the White House’s demand that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell the app. The administration also backed a new bill, sponsored by Senators Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, that would give it more power to ban TikTok.

Mr. Chew, who was appointed TikTok’s chief executive in May 2021, has in recent months embarked on a charm offensive in Washington, meeting with lawmakers, think tank leaders and journalists. This week, he tried garnering support with a video on TikTok’s official account, warning users that politicians “could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you.”

TikTok has support from free speech proponents, who warned against banning the app.

“Banning or restricting access to social media is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes, and we should be very wary about giving the US government that kind of power,” Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in a statement. statement.

Lawmakers also raised concerns about TikTok and young Americans in the hearing. The app is used by 67 percent of US teenagers, according to the Pew Research Center. TikTok has faced criticism that it’s too addictive and that its algorithm can bombard teens with videos that put them in dangerous and even lethal situations.

“TikTok could be designed to minimize the harm to kids, but a decision was made to aggressively addict kids in the name of profits,” Representative Kathy Castor, Democrat of Florida, said during the hearing.

Mr. Chew said TikTok had worked to limit the repetition of videos about topics like extreme exercise and that the app’s guidelines did not allow content promoting self-harm or eating disorders. He also pointed to new 60-minute screen time limits, which parents can control, for users 12 and under, and prompts that now appear after 60 minutes for 13- to 17-year-olds.

Lawmakers weren’t assuaged. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, Democrat of Delaware, said Mr. Chew’s testimony solidified concerns over the company’s ties to China, data privacy violations and how the app treats children.

“I think that really summarizes why you see so much bipartisan consensus and concerns about your company,” she said. And I imagine that it’s not going away anytime soon.

Chang Che contributed reporting.

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