The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The truly revealing TikTok hearing was the one that featured Uyghurs

Nury Turkel, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, testifies in front of a House committee on March 23. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
4 min

An earlier version of this column misspelled Douyin, ByteDance’s Chinese version of TikTok. This version has been updated.

Critics of last week’s congressional hearing with TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew complained that it produced no new information. The witness was evasive and the lawmakers, ill-informed. True enough. But a separate hearing on Capitol Hill that day did provide useful testimony about the dangers of the Chinese social media platform.

At a meeting of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party on the subject of the ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims, Uyghurs with firsthand experience of Chinese technological repression testified about how TikTok and its parent company ByteDance pose a threat to Americans’ national security, privacy and human rights. Indeed, TikTok and ByteDance came up several times during this hearing because, as witnesses explained, the two issues are linked.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the committee chairman, pointed out that Chew, during his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, had declined four times to acknowledge that the Chinese government is persecuting Uyghurs. To some, Chew’s evasion might have seemed to be an innocent attempt to avoid wading into a controversial matter.

But Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American lawyer who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, argued to the China committee that TikTok and ByteDance don’t criticize the Chinese government’s abuse of the Uyghurs because they are complicit.

“ByteDance has a strategic partnership with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security. That is part of their business conduct,” Turkel said. “This is what they do.”

For Uyghurs, ByteDance’s danger is not hypothetical. When Chinese authorities initially built the surveillance and monitoring system in Xinjiang that preceded the re-education camps, they relied on data from Chinese tech platforms including WeChat and Douyin, ByteDance’s local TikTok version.

Turkel also refuted Chew’s testimony that TikTok would never honor requests from any government to hand over user data or allow any government to direct its moderation. In China, tech companies work toward CCP objectives without being asked, he said, and Chinese business executives who don’t toe the party line quickly disappear or worse.

ByteDance has had a Chinese Communist Party committee housed inside its corporate bureaucracy since 2017, as part of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to crack down on the independence of private tech companies. In 2018, after being scolded by the party, ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming publicly pledged that his company would work to promote the party’s interests and its propaganda.

Hundreds of ByteDance employees have come from Chinese state media, including dozens of TikTok employees. When ByteDance began its formal relationship with the police in China, it pledged to promote their “influence and credibility” through its China-based apps, including Douyin. ByteDance has been repeatedly caught exporting this censorship via its U.S. apps as well.

Leaked company documents from 2019 revealed instructions for TikTok moderators to censor content related to Tibet, Tiananmen Square and other topics the Beijing government deems sensitive. Last year, former employees of the now-defunct ByteDance-owned news app TopBuzz claimed the app had for years promoted pro-CCP content to influence U.S. public opinion.

Turkel said Chew’s equating TikTok’s practices with those of American social media companies doesn’t hold water because U.S. firms don’t work on behalf of a foreign government that has a record of stealing Americans’ data. “People argue that our social media companies do it as well, but that’s for a commercial purpose,” he said. “[TikTok] is a spying tool for the Chinese state.”

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) asked Turkel whether he agreed with TikTok’s chief operating officer when he said that U.S. criticism of TikTok felt “rooted in xenophobia.” Turkel noted that the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy to counter critics of its human rights abuses is to falsely accuse them of racism.

It shouldn’t be surprising that TikTok’s CEO would not admit the threat his app poses to Americans. Nor that the Energy and Commerce Committee didn’t understand the nuances of how the Chinese government and its tech companies work together. This is why the China committee was created.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.), the ranking Democrat on the China committee, said at the hearing, “Chinese high-tech companies work closely with Chinese officials to impose a pervasive and high-tech surveillance system that has been called an open-air prison. It matters for us because China’s tech tools are being exported around the world.”

Last week, the Chinese government undermined Chew’s assertion that ByteDance is independent by announcing that it would not permit the company to sell TikTok to U.S. interests. The platform’s claims to be immune from malign party influence are also well refuted by the testimony of Uyghurs and other victims of China’s repression, who deserve more of the world’s attention.