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TikTok has recently tried to quell US lawmakers’ concerns that it poses a national security threat because it is owned by Chinese internet company ByteDance. The viral video app has insisted that it has an independent relationship with ByteDance and that its own manager is in charge.
“TikTok is led by its own global CEO, Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean based in Singapore,” TikTok wrote in a letter to US lawmakers in June.
But in reality, Chew’s decision-making authority over TikTok is limited, according to 12 former employees and executives at TikTok and ByteDance.
Decisions about the service — including moves to emphasize live streaming and shopping on TikTok — are being made by Zhang Yiming, ByteDance’s founder, as well as ByteDance’s chief strategy officer and head of TikTok’s research and development team, said the people, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. TikTok’s growth and strategy, led by ByteDance teams, do not report to Chew but to ByteDance’s Beijing office, they said.
The arrangements illustrate the tightrope Chew, 39, walks as head of one of the world’s most popular social apps. Since he was appointed CEO of TikTok in May 2021, he has had to present himself to the West as the autonomous leader of the global service while also meeting the demands of the app’s Chinese parent.
Chew faces mounting challenges. While TikTok has penetrated people’s smartphones and gained an estimated 1.6 billion monthly active users, its ties to ByteDance have raised concerns that it may be leaking people’s data to Chinese authorities. In recent months, US lawmakers and regulators have increasingly questioned TikTok’s data practices, reigniting the debate over how the United States should handle business relationships with foreign companies.
On Wednesday, TikTok’s chief operating officer testified before Congress and downplayed the app’s ties to China. President Joe Biden on Thursday signed an executive order to tighten the federal government’s powers to block Chinese technology investments in the United States and limit its access to private data about citizens.
In an email, TikTok said Chew was ultimately responsible for product decisions and the app’s strategy. ByteDance said it was familiar with the company’s business.
Little is known about Chew and how he runs TikTok. But former TikTok and ByteDance employees said he focused on bringing financial discipline to the app during the global downturn. It said it had tightened budgets, ended marketing experiments and laid off employees in North America as the app moved additional operations to Singapore. Chew also met with global business executives and European regulators.
At a meeting late last year, a TikTok employee asked where Chew saw the app in 100 years. “I just want to make money next year,” he said, according to three people who were on the call.
But ByteDance has more control, others said. “If he didn’t want to do something that ByteDance wanted him to do, he could be fired and someone else could be put in his place,” Salvatore Babones, director of China and free societies at the Center for Independent Studies, The Australian. think tank, he said of Chew.
Chew confirmed a well-known relationship with ByteDance that dates back to when he helped invest in the company nearly a decade ago.
In March 2021, Chew announced that he was joining ByteDance as CFO, fueling speculation that the company would go public. (It remains privately owned.)
Two months later, TikTok appointed Chew as CEO, with Zhang praising his “deep knowledge of the company and the industry”. Late last year, Chew stepped down from his role at ByteDance to focus on TikTok.
TikTok has been without a permanent CEO since August 2020, when Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, left following the Trump administration’s efforts to separate the app from its Chinese parent company. China has also cracked down on its domestic internet giants, with Zhang resigning from his official roles at ByteDance last year. Zhang remains involved in decision-making, people with knowledge of ByteDance said.
ByteDance had optics in mind when selecting TikTok CEOs, said five people with knowledge of Chew’s appointment. Mayer, who was based in Los Angeles, was hired because he was American at a time when TikTok wanted to look different from its Chinese parent, they said. Chew is reaching out to the Western and Chinese business worlds, with Singapore offering a hedge against any potential intervention by China or the United States, they said.
But both Mayer and Chew’s power as head of TikTok has been limited by ByteDance, five people with knowledge of the company said.
Changes to the core TikTok app and its features are made through Zhang; ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo, who was Zhang’s college roommate; Zhao Pengyuan, Strategy Manager of ByteDance; and Zhu Wenjia, head of TikTok’s research and development team, the people said. ByteDance executives are driving TikTok’s development by first seeing what happens on Douyin, its Chinese counterpart, they added.
In May, Chew flew to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, where he spoke with European regulators and ministers from Saudi Arabia to discuss digital strategy.
He recently defended TikTok’s data practices. In a letter to US lawmakers in June, the app noted that ByteDance employees in China can access Americans’ data when they are “subject to a series of robust cybersecurity controls.” However, he said TikTok is in the process of separating and securing its user data in the US as part of an initiative known as Project Texas, where the app works with US software giant Oracle.