TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew spent Thursday’s congressional hearing on the ropes in a bipartisan beatdown.
Republican and Democratic representatives alike grilled Chew before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing over the Chinese state-owned company’s alleged surveillance of American users. U.S. lawmakers and President Joe Biden’s administration have raised concerns of a potential national security threat posed by TikTok’s Chinese state-owned parent company, ByteDance, and have threatened a national ban on the app.
Republican Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer pressed Chew on the app’s alleged censorship of posts about the internment of Uyghur Muslims in China. TikTok executive Michael Beckerman refused to acknowledge the genocide and concentration camps of Muslims during a December appearance on CNN.
“No, you know he’s [Beckerman] here, he’s sitting right behind you,” Palmer told Chew. “I want to know why, when Mr. Beckerman was on Jake Tapper on CNN and asked repeatedly to condemn Chinese communist government’s treatment of Uyghurs, when that treatment has been classified by the United States as a genocide, when a UN report classifies it as a crime against humanity, why after multiple questions, Mr. Beckerman refused to address that? Are you afraid of the Chinese communist government?”
“Why couldn’t your vice president of public policy, the guy who’s head of public policy for the Americas, on an American television … why couldn’t he condemn that?” Palmer pressed.
The representative questioned whether he and the company are “afraid of the Chinese Communist government,” which Chew denied.
Republican Florida Rep. Kat Cammack pressed Chew on his “regular contact” with the Zhang Fuping, the editor-in-chief of ByteDance and parent company’s Chinese Communist Party committee secretary. He said he does not have regular contact with him, but immediately admitted to having frequent contact with the CEO of ByteDance.
Kammack then pressed him on ByteDance’s ability to access user data on the app.
“Your parent company, ByteDance, currently can access user data, yes?” she asked.
“We have to be more specific,” Chew said.
“Yes,” Kammack reiterated.
“What’s interesting to me is that you have used the word ‘transparency’ over a half a dozen times in your opening testimony and subsequently again, in your answers to my colleagues,” she said. “Yet the interesting thing to me is that ByteDance, your parent company, has gone out of their way to hide and airbrush corporate structure ties to the CCP, the company’s founder, and their activities.” (RELATED: TikTok CEO To Testify In Front Of Congress)
She pointed to a memo from TikTok corporate headquarters that told management to “downplay” ByteDance and its association with the Chinese Communist Party. Chew denied that he had ever seen the memo.
The Florida representative played a video posted to TikTok which threatened violence against the committee chairwoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers. The video appeared to be a direct violation of the app’s community guidelines that forbids threats or incitements of violence.
“You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans where you can’t even protect the people in this room? I think that is a blatant display of how vulnerable people who use TikTok are,” she said. “You couldn’t take action after 41 days when a clear threat, a very violent threat to the chairwoman of this committee and the members of this committee was posted on your platform. You damn well know that you cannot protect the data and security of this committee or the 150 million users of your app, because it is an extension of the CCP.”
On the other side of the aisle, Democratic California Rep. Anna Eshoo told Chew it is “preposterous” that he claimed there is no evidence of the Chinese government accessing American users’ data.
“I’m glad you asked this,” Chew responded. “As I said in the opening statement, our plan is to move American data to be stored on American soil.”
“I understand that,” Eshoo said, cutting Chew off, “but you’re sidestepping — or I haven’t read anything in terms of TikTok, how you can actually say — and you spoke in your opening statement about a firewall relative to the data, but the Chinese government has that data.”
“How can you promise that that will move into the United States of America and be protected here?” Eshoo pressed.
“Congresswoman, I have seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data,” Chew testified. “They have never asked us. We have not provided.”
“I find that actually preposterous,” Eshoo told Chew.
Rodgers, the committee chairwoman, questioned Chew on a report that ByteDance used TikTok data to surveil journalists who were covering the company in 2022.
“TikTok spied on American journalists. Can you say with 100% certainty that neither ByteDance, nor TikTok employees, can target other Americans with similar surveillance techniques?” Rodgers asked.
“I disagree with the characterization that it’s ‘spying,’” said Chew.
“Can you do surveillance of other Americans?” she further pressed, to which Chew said the company would protect Americans’ user data.
“I wanted to hear you say with 100% certainty that neither ByteDance nor TikTok employees can target other Americans with similar surveillance techniques as you did with the journalists,” Rodgers said.
“Again, I disagree with the characterization of ‘surveillance,’” Chew replied.
The TikTok CEO further declined to answer Republican Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko’s question of whether China is persecuting Uyghur Muslims, despite documents allegedly providing substantial evidence of the cause.