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TikTok leader postpones trip to Washington to meet with members of Congress

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

TikTok chief Alex Zhu has canceled a scheduled trip to Washington to meet with members of Congress, lawmakers said, a move that stoked fresh criticism of the social-media app at a moment when it’s trying to repair its relationships with U.S. officials.

TikTok in a statement confirmed that Zhu was postponing his planned Washington trip until “after the holidays.” It said the postponement was necessary “to ensure these conversations are as productive as possible.”

“TikTok has no higher priority than ensuring Congress members’ questions are addressed fully and transparently,” the statement said.

Zhu’s change of plans came to light Monday in a tweet from Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri lawmaker who was scheduled to meet with the TikTok leader after months of criticism about the company’s Chinese ties.

“Not willing to answer questions,” he tweeted. “Get a call from Beijing?”

Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, tweeted similarly later.

“What are they really doing with your data and what type surveillance are they conducting on your precious children? TikTok — you owe us answers,” she said.

One source familiar with Zhu’s plans, who was not authorized to speak on the record, cited scheduling conflicts as the reason for the cancellation.

Hawley and other members of Congress in recent months have stepped up their criticism of TikTok, fearing that the company’s ownership by a Chinese conglomerate, ByteDance, could put Americans’ data at risk or result in censorship of the controversial videos they share. TikTok has responded by stressing its independence, its work to expand its U.S. operations and its business practices, including storing users’ data in the United States and Singapore.

Zhu had sought to deliver that message personally, building on the work done by TikTok’s newly hired Washington lobbyists.

But early signs emerged that some of the company’s skeptics weren’t actually willing to meet with him. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who in October asked the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, to open a probe into the merger that ultimately resulted in TikTok’s creation, had declined to meet with Zhu, his spokesman said. CFIUS has launched such a probe.

“Senator Rubio is still concerned about TikTok’s ties to China,” his office said. “TikTok has yet to explain to American users how they protect their data and how much of it can be made available to the Chinese government and Communist Party, which is why Senator Rubio requested that the Treasury Department conduct a CFIUS review.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), later asked U.S. intelligence officials to determine whether the Chinese-owned social-networking app TikTok poses “national security risks.”