TikTok CEO Says Xi Jinping Not Hiding In App

TikTok CEO Shou Chew spent his Thursday being interrogated by US lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

I’m not sure we learned much from the spectacle, other than that Americans have a very difficult time pronouncing Chinese names properly, even when they’ve presumably rehearsed.

Various media reports have indicated the Biden administration intends to compel parent ByteDance to sell its stake in the wildly popular app, which might otherwise be banned in the US. This is one of the only matters of national concern around which there’s something loosely akin to bipartisan agreement.

I frankly don’t understand why we’re still having the discussion. This debate has taken up almost four years of America’s time, and probably several millennia if you add up the hours the nation’s youth have spent on TikTok’s platform.

It’s impossible to say for sure whether TikTok poses a serious national security threat, but it’s eminently possible that it poses some kind of security threat, and it’s absolutely the case that the country would be better off without it. The last thing America’s teenagers and young adults need is another excuse to waste time. And from what I gather, TikTok is a black hole in that regard. (So are Twitter and Instagram and all the rest, and I don’t like them either.)

The argument — advanced by at least a couple of otherwise intelligent people this week — that US lawmakers should refrain from being overzealous when it comes to TikTok for fear of alienating young voters seems dubious to me. If the nation’s young adults are so wedded to their social media apps that banning just one on national security grounds has the potential to impact an election, then the country’s social media addiction is itself a national security threat.

I can’t bring myself to dedicate much coverage to this (and I hope you’ll thank me for that), but I’d be remiss not to briefly highlight it given the extent to which it’s part and parcel of the geopolitical tensions between the US and China.

Chew conceded Thursday that he couldn’t guarantee ByteDance employees don’t have access to TikTok’s data, which is really all that matters. He said he hasn’t “seen evidence” of that, but it’s hard to know what that means. At least as it relates to national security, the entire hearing was exemplified by one exchange with Ohio Republican Bob Latta.

“Do any ByteDance employees in China, including engineers, have access to US user data?” Latta asked Chew, who tried to obfuscate. “Congressman, I would appreciate… this is a complex topic,” Chew ventured.

I’m sure it is. A “complex topic,” I mean. But, as Latta emphasized, his wasn’t an especially “complex” question. “Yes or no?” he pressed.

Chew again tried to dodge. He referenced “Project Texas,” a plan under which ByteDance would retain ownership, but TikTok’s US data would be stored on domestic servers run by Oracle.

Ultimately, Chew wasn’t willing to definitively rule out the possibility that someone in China, right now, is parsing TikTok’s data on an estimated 150 million Americans.

To be clear: This is a problem because China is, at best, a strategic adversary of the US in 2023. At worst, it’s a prospective enemy combatant in a future armed conflict. That’s highly unfortunate. All of us wish it wasn’t the case. But it is the case, and when considered with the fact that China is an authoritarian government which operates a sprawling domestic police state, concerns are justified.

Whether the risk is “real” is another matter, and I’ll be the first to admit that this may all be overblown — absurd, even. It’s entirely possible this is just a modern day Red Scare. If that’s the case, it’s a shame, and if I have to apologize for participating in it at some point, I will.

But in the here and now, what does America lose from banning one social media app? Nothing. Your teenager might argue with me, and I’d listen patiently, but I wouldn’t be swayed. Your twentysomething might argue with me, and at the risk of upsetting you, I’d tell her to grow up. Your thirtysomething might argue with me, and I’d give him a loan so he can move out of your basement.

In his prepared remarks, Chew on Thursday said, “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country.”

Meanwhile, China doesn’t want ByteDance to divest. Beijing “firmly opposes” the sale of the app, Xi Jinping’s foreign ministry said, just hours before Chew spoke to Congress.

If the Biden administration forces a sale, it’d “seriously undermine confidence” and discourage “various countries” from investing in the US, “including China,” a spokeswoman went on. Without irony, I’m sure.


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4 thoughts on “TikTok CEO Says Xi Jinping Not Hiding In App

  1. Can Byte Dance staff access user data? You can bet on it. And my guess is the CCP would want the data too. They would collect it over a long term. And you can bet that they don’t give a lick about the videos.

    1. The NSA collects and stores every digital communication from every American, every day. My health care provider provides all of my health care and personal info to any “company” who wants it. The only person who can’t see my data is me. Facebook provided subscriber data to a research company without permission to use in the 2016 election. Come on folks, if your on the internet everyone who’s got your data uses it for whatever they want. Any clerk in the office at Visa and other such places can get access to data about everything you buy with your card. This is a tempest in a teapot. Does anyone seriously thing their personal info is being accessed by some solitary Chinese worker somewhere? For what. Well into the MASH TV series Frank Burns is ranting about the horrible Chinese communists and says they are coming for our toilets to steal our way of life.

      1. Amazon as well.

        Prodded along by the SEC, we all do our best to secure client data. That makes good sense. But when the friggin’ Pentagon can get hacked, I sometimes wonder how much of this work is for show.

  2. Almost all US and other Western owned social media and messaging platforms are banned or blocked in China – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Snapchat, Messenger, WhatsApp, Linked In, Instagram, etc – as are almost all US based news and media platforms and streaming platforms.

    Heck, even Tik Tok is blocked in China.

    China has no leg to stand on, even before data security is considered, and yes, it is laughable to suggest that ByteDance doesn’t have access to Tik Tok user data, so much that Tik Tok’s CEO daren’t testify otherwise.

    Shut it down already. Users will migrate to another platform – Facebook and Youtube are waiting with open arms and basically equivalent services.

    While we’re at it, legislate that data on US users on any platform can only be held or accessed in the US and a shortlist of approved countries.

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