February 2, 2024
WASHINGTON – TikTok’s Chinese parentage has put its Singaporean chief executive Chew Shou Zi in the hot seat again at a congressional hearing focused on safety for children on social media platforms.
In his second appearance before US lawmakers in less than a year, Mr Chew faced a barrage of questions ranging from TikTok’s Chinese ownership to its alleged censorship of political topics – and even his own citizenship.
The video-sharing app’s popularity among American teenagers and young adults is undisputed. That it is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance has made it a punching bag at a time when acute rivalry with China informs nearly every aspect of US policymaking.
Apart from Mr Chew, four other big tech chiefs also testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee at Capitol Hill on Jan 31.
Meta’s Mr Mark Zuckerberg, Snap’s Mr Evan Spiegel, X’s Ms Linda Yaccarino and Discord’s Mr Jason Citron were asked to account for the proliferation of child sexual abuse materials on their platforms and were warned that laws would be amended to let victims sue tech platforms.
Mr Zuckerberg took the most heat. At one point, he was asked to turn around and face the parents standing at the back, holding placards for children who had been victims of abuse online.
He expressed regret about what they had experienced, and promised to prevent it from happening to others.
Mr Chew, meanwhile, was singled out for TikTok’s China connection.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, alleged that while China’s version of TikTok, called Douyin, served up beneficial and educational materials to children in China, it threw up negative content for children in America.
“If you look at what is on TikTok in China, you are promoting to kids science and maths videos, educational videos. You limit the amount of time kids can be on TikTok,” said Mr Cruz, addressing Mr Chew.
“In the United States, you are promoting self-harm videos and anti-Israel propaganda to kids. Why is there such a dramatic difference?”
In his reply, Mr Chew said: “Senator, that is just not accurate.”
But Mr Cruz was not satisfied, and interrupted him to quote from a study that said political posts considered sensitive by China – on topics such as protests in Hong Kong or Tibet – trend less on TikTok compared with Meta-owned Instagram.
Mr Chew responded that the study had been debunked by the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think-tank. He said that TikTok’s algorithm “does not suppress any content simply based on the question”.
Mr Chew added: “This analysis is flawed. You’re selectively choosing some words, some periods.”
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, pressed Mr Chew to agree that the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 was more than a “protest”, as described by China.
He also sought to know whether Mr Chew supported the US assertion that the Chinese government was committing genocide against the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region.
Mr Chew demurred, saying: “Anyone who cares about this topic or any topic freely expresses themselves on TikTok.”
Mr Cotton pressed on, referencing a comment made by US President Joe Biden after meeting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in November 2023. “Biden last year said that Xi Jinping was a dictator. Do you agree with Joe Biden’s position?” he asked.
Mr Chew said as a businessman, he could not comment on any world leaders.
“Are you afraid that you’ll lose your job if you say anything negative about the Chinese Communist Party?” Mr Cotton shot back. “Are you scared that you will be arrested and disappear the next time you go to mainland China?”
The senators also questioned Mr Chew’s citizenship, asking if he was a citizen of any other country besides Singapore. When he denied that was the case, Mr Cotton asked if he had ever applied for Chinese citizenship, noting that he had lived in Beijing.
“Senator, I served my nation in Singapore,” Mr Chew replied, adding that he had not sought Chinese citizenship.
Mr Cotton then asked if he had other passports apart from Singapore’s. When Mr Chew replied that he did not have any, the senator noted that his wife and children were American citizens.
He went on to question if Mr Chew has ever been a member of, associated or affiliated with the Communist Party of China (CPC).
“Senator, I’m Singaporean! No,” replied Mr Chew, stressing that he has no links with the Chinese party.
Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, asked Mr Chew whether TikTok has shared user data with the Chinese government.
“Senator, we have not been asked for any data by the Chinese government. And we have never provided it,” replied Mr Chew.
He repeated the assertion that TikTok has made several times: It is a private company based in China, but not controlled by the government or CPC officials. “TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which is majority-owned by global investors, and we have three Americans on the board out of five,” he said.
Still, Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, again brought up suspicions about TikTok being vulnerable to Chinese influence, noting that it has to comply with a 2017 national intelligence law requiring Chinese companies to hand over data to the government.
“Your platform is basically an espionage arm for the Chinese Communist Party. Why should you not be banned in the United States?” he asked.
Mr Chew attempted to defend his company, saying that TikTok has spent US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) on a project to wall off American user data. It also brings in engineers and third parties to certify that the app’s algorithm performs without interference from China.
He also refuted a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that said TikTok is struggling to maintain the “firewall”.
Mr Chew, 41, was appointed CEO of TikTok in 2021 after a career in investment banking. In March 2023, he appeared before a House of Representatives panel scrutinising whether TikTok’s Chinese ownership made it a national security threat.
He attempted to calm concerns then, too, spelling out the “bottom line” as being: American data stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel.
From the senators’ line of questioning, the Jan 31 hearing seems to show that Mr Chew’s 2023 attempt had been to little avail.