On January 31st, the CEOs of several major social media companies testified in front of the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee on the use of their platforms for the sexual exploitation of children. The committee members questioned the CEOs of Discord, Meta, SnapChat, TikTok, and X on different subjects related to child exploitation, such as how they find and remove child sexual abuse material. However, the questions asked by various senators to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew stood out since they were related to TikTok’s relationship with ByteDance and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
National Intelligence Law and U.S. Citizen Data
The most notable issue that Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz (R-Tx) questioned Chew about is whether ByteDance employees could access the data of U.S. citizens, before and after the creation of Project Texas in 2021. The concern lies in how Chinese companies, such as ByteDance (TikTok’s owner), would have to comply with any request from the Chinese intelligence agencies due to the 2017 National Intelligence Law (NIL).
Specifically, the companies would need to comply with Articles 7, 10, and 14 due to articles outlining how companies or individuals would be legally required to assist in “intelligence work at home and abroad.” Furthermore, Article Seven also contains a provision that states any citizen or organization must “keep the secrets of national intelligence work they know.”
Another reason for the concern is due to various news articles, such as a January 30th Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article that stated ByteDance employees accessed the data of U.S. citizens. These articles mentioned the concerns that Project Texas employees had regarding the possibility that TikTok and ByteDance could still view the data and that the safeguards did not go far enough.
The WSJ article also said that the employees tasked with reviewing changes to the algorithm could not review every piece of code that ByteDance engineers modified. Senator Cornyn questioned Chew about the article, specifically if TikTok will investigate the article’s claims, such as that ByteDance employees can still view U.S. citizens’ data. However, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo) also used the article to refute Chew’s response that Project Texas eliminated ByteDance’s ability to view the data and made progress with the project.
Ties to the Chinese Communist Party
Some senators also questioned Chew regarding the potential ties both he and TikTok had with the CCP. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ak) asked several questions along these lines during his exchange with Chew at the hearing. The senator asked if the CCP had any influence over the company due to ByteDance being a Chinese company. Chew said that TikTok is a private business but said “all businesses that operate in China have to follow their local laws.” He also reiterated that companies have to follow local laws when Cotton asked if ByteDance has a CCP committee.
Cotton also questioned both the timing of Chew’s appointment as TikTok CEO and his past roles at ByteDance and Xiaomi. Chew was ByteDance’s CFO before being appointed as TikTok CEO in May 2021, after the state-owned China and Internet Investment Fund (CIIF) purchased a 1 percent stake or golden share in the company. The golden share allowed the CIIF to appoint one of the three board members in the company and have significant influence in the company’s decision-making, such as the appointment of CEOs. Chew was also Xiaomi’s CFO from 2015 to 2021 before becoming the CFO of ByteDance.
The various questions the senators asked Chew about illustrate the high level of concern some politicians have regarding the social media platform. For example, ByteDance employees continue to have access to the data of U.S. citizens even after the creation and completion of Project Texas in 2021 and 2023. This notion is corroborated through the various news articles published during the time between 2021 and now that provide secondhand proof.
While continued access does have some legitimate purposes, such as training the algorithm, there are no guarantees that the information will be passed on to the Chinese government. It is also very likely that the Chinese intelligence agencies, such as the Ministry of State Security, exploit this loophole by using the NIL, specifically Articles 7, 10, and 14. These articles would allow the agencies to either force ByteDance and possibly TikTok to hand over information or simply steal it through cyber operations or other forms of espionage.
Regarding the possibility that the CCP exerts influence on the company through ByteDance, it is likely that this occurs for various reasons. The first and most notable reason is that CIIF owns a golden share in the company, which allows them to wield immense influence in ByteDance and likely through TikTok. The influence would come in the form of both the CIIF-installed board member and the company’s CCP committee. The board member would either be someone that the state-owned CIIF would either be a CCP member or someone that the party trusts to enact their directives.
Furthermore, ByteDance’s CPP committee would also have influence regarding the daily operations of the company and possibly exert some indirect influence on TikTok. The reason why is due to TikTok not having a CCP committee for the entire company, which is likely limited to having some form of committee or apparatus for its Chinese operations. However, it is very likely that the company does have some CCP members as employees since they do employ several Chinese nationals, as Chew pointed out in his testimony. The second reason is that ByteDance owns TikTok and would have immense influence regarding its operations.
Chew is unlikely to be an actual member of the CCP but rather an agent of influence since the party rarely allows a foreigner and reluctantly allows ‘capitalists’ to join the party. While Chew is of Chinese ethnicity, he has Singaporean citizenship, which disqualifies him from CCP membership due to the requirement of being a Chinese national to join. There is no indication that Chew clandestinely applied for and received Chinese citizenship since he became CFO of Xiaomi in 2015.
However, having Chew as an agent of influence makes more sense since it allows the party to have more leeway in how it influences TikTok. For example, Chew can simply say he is Singaporean and he served his country; he was a Singaporean Army officer for his 2.5 years of mandatory service, like he said during the hearing. This allowed Chew to present himself as a victim of racism and stereotyping that is seen in both Singaporean and overseas Chinese media. Another reason is that the CCP already knows that Chew can be trusted due to his time as CFO at Xiaomi, but especially at ByteDance.