The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

TikTok CEO’s mission: Fend off a ban. It may be a ‘death wish.’

The app’s chief executive helped invest in the Chinese engineers who founded its parent company. Now, he’s a lonely defender of one of Washington’s most pummeled punching bags.

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew is interviewed at the company's office near Capitol Hill last month. “We hear general unrelated fears, analogies, associations that don’t make sense” about the popular app, he said. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
14 min

Ten years ago, working as a young venture capital banker in Beijing, Shou Zi Chew helped lead one of the first investments in a small machine-learning start-up called ByteDance, helping it grow from its office in a four-bedroom apartment into the 150,000-employee international empire behind TikTok, one of the world’s most popular apps.

Now, as TikTok’s chief executive, he’s become the face of what some Washington lawmakers have claimed, without evidence, is a shadowy Chinese spying and propaganda machine. When he takes the stand for his first congressional hearing Thursday, he is likely to face the grilling of a lifetime from lawmakers who argue that the app, now with 150 million U.S. users, can’t be trusted and must be banned or sold.

Chew, a 40-year-old native of Singapore, has worked to counter American suspicions with hard logic, telling members of Congress in one-on-one meetings that his company is unaffiliated with the Chinese government and is committed to building a “sunny corner of the internet” for colorful videos and creative speech.

“I don’t want to go in and question anybody’s intentions. That’s not my job,” he said in an interview last month at the company’s WeWork suite near Capitol Hill.

“We hear general unrelated fears, analogies, associations that don’t make sense,” he added, “and for those, I think the right approach is to make sure that we reach out to understand: Is there anything more specific you’re talking about? And how do we address that?”

His charm offensive has run up against a heavily polarized and surprisingly bipartisan resistance in Washington, where tensions with the Chinese government — and broader anxieties about social media and American children — have made TikTok into a political punching bag.

“The temperature is so high right now,” said Jim Lewis, director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “I would not choose this week to go to the Hill unless you have a death wish.”

Chew said he’s working to overcome the “trust deficit” that lawmakers have with not just TikTok but any company coming from China, the world’s second-deepest wellspring of tech innovation. His congressional testimony will probably be widely watched by TikTok’s millions of American fans, its thousands of U.S. employees and its investors across the West, who worry that a U.S. government crusade could puncture its multibillion-dollar empire.

But even a persuasive performance by Chew may not be enough. Biden administration officials, like Trump appointees before them, have argued that TikTok should be sold to a U.S. buyer to resolve national security concerns about how the app could funnel Americans’ data to the Chinese government or boost Chinese propaganda — two charges for which the United States has never provided evidence, and which TikTok’s leaders have argued are speculative and wrong.

Chew’s testimony could raise uncomfortable questions about what happens when American tech giants are no longer the dominant force behind what Americans see online. But it could also highlight Washington’s growing interest in using geopolitics to pick winners and losers on the internet — an issue with major consequences for the shape of the future web.

TikTok may be just the start. Of the Apple App Store’s 10 most-downloaded free apps in the United States, four are owned by Chinese companies, three of which rank above TikTok: PDD Holdings’ shopping app Temu; the fast-fashion titan Shein; and another ByteDance app, the video editor CapCut, which has more than 200 million active users worldwide.

Jeffrey Towson, a former professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management who now works as a tech consultant, said Chew’s time at ByteDance coincides with China’s ascent on the global internet, including the creation of the first Chinese-owned app Americans know and use.

“The idea that a Chinese social media company could break into the U.S. against Facebook and YouTube — that was a crazy idea back then, and now they’re all trying to do it, but ByteDance was the first,” Towson said.

“TikTok is now the case study” for how American lawmakers will respond, he added. “If you give them the power to ban social media companies, you think this is going to be the only time it happens?”

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‘Like any good start-up story’

Before taking over TikTok in 2021, Chew followed the kind of top-tier corporate trajectory made possible by the globalization of modern tech.

He was born and raised in Singapore, the island nation in Southeast Asia that has become a prominent bridge for international business between China and the West. He left to study economics at a London university, saying in an interview last year that “the thing about growing up on a small island … is you get wanderlust at a very young age.”

He moved to the United States to get his master’s degree at Harvard Business School, meeting his wife in California during a summer internship while they were both working at start-ups, he told a Harvard alumni magazine. Hers was at a clean-energy company while his was at Facebook, the then-ascendant social network that has since become TikTok’s bitter enemy.

Chew worked as an investment analyst at Goldman Sachs before joining the Russia-born billionaire Yuri Milner’s venture capital firm, DST Global, known for its bets on major tech firms, including Facebook and Twitter. As a partner there, Chew helped coordinate one of the earliest investments in ByteDance by building relationships with its two young founding engineers, Liang Rubo and Zhang Yiming. (Milner renounced his Russian citizenship last year.)

“They recognized an opportunity to build a good product people wanted,” Chew said at a DealBook conference late last year. “I had the chance to invest in them, we became friends, and slowly, like any good start-up story, the product grew bigger and bigger.”

Though known in the United States primarily for TikTok, ByteDance has over the years become one of the world’s most valuable software factories, feverishly rolling out more than 100 apps across categories ranging from workplace communication (Lark) to video games (“Mobile Legends: Bang Bang”).

ByteDance’s first hit, the news app Toutiao, used a recommendation algorithm to personalize people’s feeds based on their tastes and behaviors; the same idea would drive TikTok to global stardom after it launched in 2017.

The Beijing-based company now says it runs offices in nearly 120 cities around the world, including Austin, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle. But its size and prominence have also landed it in the crosshairs of the Chinese state: In 2018, after ByteDance was forced to close a comedy app that regulators had deemed “vulgar and improper,” the founders said in an apologetic public letter that they’d work to ensure that communist values were “broadcast to strength.”

In 2021, ByteDance hired Chew as its chief financial officer, pulling him from another Chinese tech firm, the smartphone giant Xiaomi, where he had helped lead an initial public offering and announce new lines of computer monitors.

By the time of his hiring, the Trump administration had already ordered the fast-growing app banned or sold to an American company, and the Chinese government had responded by declaring its technology a strategic asset, blocking any possible sale.

Before the Trump implosion, ByteDance hired Kevin Mayer, a Disney executive who had helped launch its streaming network, as TikTok’s CEO, believing he’d help expand TikTok’s global footprint. But when Mayer resigned after three months, citing a “sharply changed” political environment, the company elevated Chew into the role.

After years of saying little about its negotiations with U.S. officials, TikTok has in recent months moved to more aggressively tell its side of the story, saying it had for too long ceded ground to critics who were slamming the company with baseless claims.

Top TikTok officials — as well as ByteDance’s top lawyer, the former Microsoft executive Erich Andersen — have conducted in-depth briefings with journalists, researchers and policymakers. The company has also hosted press events at a TikTok “transparency center” in Los Angeles, replete with museum-style exhibits in which journalists can review how the app’s code and moderation systems work.

Chew and his bosses at ByteDance have pushed the idea that they are not so different from the tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. ByteDance’s founders have recorded videos of them touring their first Beijing apartment office, echoing the nostalgic mythmaking that executives at Apple and other tech companies made popular through visits to old San Francisco Bay Area dorm rooms and garages.

In a video from Washington posted Tuesday on the company’s TikTok account, Chew wore the cliche ensemble of American tech geeks — a blue hoodie and jeans — and asked TikTokers to leave comments about what they wanted their elected representatives to know about the app. One of the top comments said, “You know something went wrong when the boss has to show up,” with a cry-laughing emoji.

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‘Security nightmare’

Chew, a married father of two based in Singapore, has spent much of the past several weeks in Washington, working to personally meet with members of Congress — including all the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, before which he’ll be testifying — to explain the company’s position.

The company had been negotiating since 2019 with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a cross-agency group known as CFIUS, on alternatives to divestiture that would satisfy U.S. national security concerns.

In August, TikTok offered CFIUS a 90-page blueprint for a $1.5 billion restructuring plan that would give the U.S. government incredible leverage over TikTok’s American operations and open its data and algorithms to inspection by the American tech company Oracle. Chew has called the plan, known as Project Texas, “a solution no other company is trying to pursue.”

But the Biden administration, which has said nothing publicly about the proposal, has in recent weeks told the company that it won’t settle for mitigation efforts and wants ByteDance to sell off its stake as a way to sever any ties between TikTok and its Chinese roots.

Though Project Texas would sequester much of TikTok’s U.S. operation in a new entity whose leaders would be handpicked by the federal government, the app still relies on code and resources overseen by China-based managers and engineers. TikTok has said it will push forward on Project Texas regardless.

In the meetings, Chew has worked to provide technical details of Project Texas and talked at length about the company’s investments in children’s safety efforts and content moderation, according to people who have attended. He has called on lawmakers to push for industry-wide regulations that would hold TikTok and its American rivals to the same set of rules.

He has also urged them to think past the counter-lobbying of TikTok’s competitors, most notably Facebook parent company Meta, which The Washington Post first reported last year had funded a nationwide media and lobbying campaign designed to portray its rival as a generational threat.

Chew said he intends to tell lawmakers during the hearing that the largely lighthearted entertainment app now has more than 150 million monthly active users in the United States — a 50 percent gain in the last two years — and that a ban would stomp on their speech freedoms and undermine Americans’ cultural cachet around the world.

But he has also, with help from a high-level preparatory team inside TikTok, worked to steel himself for committee members’ responses, which probably will include an onslaught of tough questions and moments designed to elicit viral sound bites.

During TikTok’s last congressional appearance, in September, the company’s chief operating officer, a former YouTube executive named V Pappas, was pummeled by lawmakers, including Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who called the company “a walking security nightmare.” Pappas said in Los Angeles this month that some of the lawmakers’ criticism is driven by “xenophobia.”

A former TikTok employee tells Congress the app is lying about Chinese spying

Chew has worked to be outwardly diplomatic and understanding, telling The Post that some members of Congress he met with in recent weeks had “some misunderstandings” but that they nevertheless had “the right to ask questions.”

But others inside the company have described the meetings with raw exasperation, saying some of the most critical lawmakers have been stubbornly misinformed or trafficked in unsubstantiated theories that the company is an arm of China’s Communist Party.

Some, they said, were receptive to their ideas in private but seemed all too happy to attack the company when appearing later on national TV. Some lawmakers have told The Post they left their meetings with Chew entirely unconvinced: “I don’t think there’s anything they can say,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said last month.

Unlike in more traditional corporate hearings, the company has had to go it alone: Its few allies in Washington include NetChoice, a tech industry group of which it is a member. Oracle executives have offered briefings by request to a few lawmakers on how pieces of Project Texas might work but have not spoken publicly in support.

One of TikTok’s few vocal congressional supporters, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) — who has 158,000 followers on the app — said Tuesday that he would hold a news conference with TikTok creators outside the Capitol on the day before the hearing about how the ban would undermine their free-speech rights.

Under Chew, the company has unveiled a set of features this month designed to neutralize some of the most common critiques of the company.

It announced new screen-time restrictions for children, who will be limited to an hour a day unless a parent or guardian enters a special bypass code — an echo of a similar policy adopted by Chinese regulators. It also started allowing users to reset the kinds of videos popping up on their main “For You” feeds, helping them more directly shape the recommendation algorithm that its critics have said is susceptible to political meddling.

In meetings with Chew, lawmakers routinely argued that TikTok in the United States trafficked only in viral nonsense while ByteDance’s China-only version of TikTok, called Douyin, boosted videos dedicated to education and enrichment. The company has often argued that this claim is baseless, given that a quick search of TikTok in the United States yields hours of educational videos, and has noted that China’s internet uses paternalistic social rules and restrictions to shape online content in a way that would run counter to American values.

Earlier this month, however, TikTok announced that it would add tabs to its main feeds in the United States dedicated to educational videos about science, technology, engineering and math.

Chew, who has said he likes reading about theoretical physics, has said those are the kinds of videos that pop up on his TikTok feed, alongside stand-up comedy jokes and videos about golf.

The statement is in line with so much of what Chew has told lawmakers: that the TikTok they might be so scared of, and that they may never have looked at, is far more harmless than they think.

“I learn a lot of stuff,” he said with a smile. “Not everybody has had the chance to use our platform, right?”

Cat Zakrzewski and Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.


The Russia-born billionaire Yuri Milner renounced his Russian citizenship last year.