TikTok CEO grilled on Chinese Communist Party influence, searches of Taylor Swift vs. Tiananmen Square

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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew repeatedly denied under oath an affiliation with the Chinese Community Party on Wednesday, as U.S. senators grilled him during a hearing on Big Tech and the online child exploitation crisis.

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., referenced how TikTok, which is controlled by the Chinese company ByteDance, is subject to a 2017 national intelligence law requiring Chinese companies to hand over data to the Chinese government. 

Chew, who repeatedly testified he serves his nation of Singapore and has not pursued Chinese citizenship or a passport from China or any other nation, tried to make the distinction that it would be only the Chinese companies controlled by ByteDance that would be subject to the law and said efforts like Project Texas, implemented to store the TikTok data of American users on American soil, is a safeguard. 

“Isn’t it the case that Bytedance also has an internal Chinese Communist Party committee?” Cotton said. 

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TikTok CEO testifies

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Big Tech and online child sexual exploitation, in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 31, 2024. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via / Getty Images)

“Like I said, all businesses that operate in China have to follow the law,” Chew responded.  

“So your parent company is subject to the national security law that requires it to answer to the party. It has its own internal Chinese Communist Party committee. You answer to that parent company. But you expect us to believe that you’re not under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party?” Cotton said. 

Chew, who resides in Singapore with his wife and children, all American citizens, testified that he used to work as the chief financial officer of ByteDance. Cotton noted how the CCP’s China and Internet Investment Fund purchased a 1% stake in Bytedance’s main Chinese subsidiary, the Bytedance Technology Company. And in return for that 1% golden share, Cotton said the party took one of three board seats at that subsidiary company. 

Chew insisted it was only a “coincidence” that the deal was finalized on April 30, 2021, and he was appointed the CEO of TikTok the very next day, on May 1, 2021.

“It’s a coincidence,” Cotton responded, to which Chew inisted, “It is.” 

“That’s a hell of a coincidence,” Cotton exclaimed. 

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Before working for ByteDance, as Cotton noted, Chew worked for a Chinese company for about five years and lived in Beijing then. That same company was sanctioned by the United States in 2021 for “being a communist Chinese military company,” Cotton explained, but the Biden administration later reversed those sanctions. 

Earlier, Cruz asserted that China’s version of TikTok – Douyin – feeds beneficial and educational materials to children on the Chinese mainland. But the same’s not the case in the United States. 

“Now, you said earlier – you said, and I wrote this down, ‘We have not been asked for any data by the Chinese government, and we have never provided it,’” Cruz said, quoting Chew’s earlier testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I’m going to tell you and I told this when you and I met last week in my office, I do not believe you. And I’ll tell you, the American people don’t either. If you look at what is on TikTok in China, you are promoting to kids science and math videos, educational videos, you limit the amount of time kids can be on Tik Tok. In the United States, you are promoting to kids self-harm videos and anti-Israel propaganda. Why is there such a dramatic difference?’ 

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Cruz cited a study contrasting searches for Taylor Swift or former President Trump against other terms the CCP might be intent on censoring, such as Uyghur, the mostly Muslim ethnic group in China, as well as Hong Kong, where widespread anti-Chinese government protests unfolded in recent years, and Tiananmen Square, the Beijing site of the 1989 massacre of hundreds to thousands of students.

Cruz grills TikTok CEO

Sen. Ted Cruz during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., US, on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. (Getty Images)

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“So for something like hashtag Taylor Swift or hashtag Trump, researchers found roughly two Instagram posts for everyone one on Tik Tok, that’s not a dramatic difference. That difference drops jumps to 8 to 1 for the hashtag Uyghur and it jumps to 30 to 1 for the hashtag Tibet and it jumps to 57 to 1 to the hashtag Tiananmen Square and it jumps to 174 to 1 for the hashtag Hong Kong protest,” Cruz explained. “Why is it that on Instagram people can put up hashtag Hong Kong protest 174 times compared to Tik Tok? What censorship is Tik Tok doing at the request of the Chinese government?” 

Chew insisted that the study had been “debunked” and TikTok does not suppress content. “This analysis is flawed. You’re selectively choosing some words, some periods. We haven’t been around this obvious difference,” Chew said. 

Cotton also pressed the TikTok CEO to clarify that the Tiananmen Square massacre was more than simply a “protest,” and whether he agreed with both the Trump and Biden administration’s assertion that the Chinese government is committing genocide against the Uyghur people. But Chew dodged, instead stressing that “anyone who cares about this topic or any topic freely express themselves on TikTok.” 

“Joe Biden last year said that Jinping was a dictator. Do you agree with Joe Biden, the position being a dictator?” Cotton asked, but Chew declined to comment on any world leaders. 

Tom Cotton grills TikTok CEO

Sen. Tom Cotton speaks during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis” in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 31, 2024. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via / Getty Images)

“Are you afraid that you’ll lose your job if you say anything negative about the Chinese Communist Party?” Cotton asked. Chew insisted that content critical of China could also be found on TikTok. “Are you scared that you’ll be arrested and disappeared the next time you go to mainland China?”

Cotton cited Arkansas teenagers who killed themselves after being fed thousands of videos glorifying suicide on TikTok. Meanwhile, under the Biden administration, the Federal Trade Commission has not sued TikTok, like it has with Elon Musk’s X, as well as Facebook. 

Cotton cited how Cristina Caffarra, a former paid adviser to ByteDance, was later hired by the Biden FTC to advise on how to sue Mark Zuckerberg’s company, and public reports indicated TikTok lobbyists visited the White House more than 40 times in 2022. Chew said he could not answer as to how many White House visits TikTok lobbyists made in 2023. 

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“So all these companies are being sued by FTC. You’re not. The FTC has a former paid adviser of your parent talking about how they can sue Mr. Zuckerberg’s company. Joe Biden’s re-election campaign, the Democratic National Committee is on your platform. Let me ask you, have you or anyone else at TikTok communicated with or coordinated with the Biden administration, the Biden campaign or the Democratic National Committee to influence the flow of information on your platform?” Cotton said. “We have a company that is a tool, the Chinese Communist Party, that is poisoning the minds of America’s children. In some cases, [driving] them to suicide, and that at best, the Biden administration is taking a pass on, at worst may be in collaboration with.”  

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