The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This dissident uses Chinese-owned TikTok to criticize China’s government

His story highlights how a TikTok ban could undermine First Amendment rights and suppress speech the U.S. government wants to encourage. Congress spent virtually no time asking about that issue.

Former Hong Kong journalist Kim Wong, 57, shown here in Cambridge, Mass., has 70,000 followers on TikTok, where he criticizes the Chinese government for a Mandarin-speaking audience. (Sophie Park for The Washington Post)
13 min

Kim Wong, a longtime journalist in Hong Kong who now lives in the Boston area, has attracted a giant online audience with his Mandarin-language videos criticizing the Chinese government — including, he says, a substantial number of people inside China who use software tools to access information the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want them to see.

And many of those videos can be found in a surprising place: TikTok, the wildly popular short-video app owned by Chinese company ByteDance that the U.S. government has claimed could serve as a megaphone for pro-Communist propaganda.

Wong says he understands and supports the calls to ban TikTok in the United States because of its potential for misuse by the Chinese state. But he also calls TikTok a uniquely powerful tool for reaching young Mandarin-speaking people around the world. Blocking it would close off an influential route for questioning the Chinese government’s authoritarianism — and mean one fewer voice breaking through.

“The basic problem is that young people in China do not have correct information,” said Wong, who in the past year has posted 1,200 videos on Chinese issues to his TikTok account, where he has 70,000 followers. “The CCP is brainwashing them. Since I am on their side, I have started to produce seven or eight short videos a day.”

Wong’s audience highlights the complicated reality of the push to ban one of the country’s most popular apps. Any measure designed to address TikTok’s supposed data-privacy or propaganda risks could end up violating the First Amendment rights of the more than 150 million monthly active users TikTok says the app has in the United States. It could also deprive dissidents around the world, including inside China, of access to news and information they might otherwise not see.

Lawmakers, whose oath of office calls on them to defend the Constitution, devoted virtually no time to discussing the First Amendment implications of a nationwide ban during Thursday’s hearing. Instead, they spent most of the hearing questioning the company’s claims of independence from the Chinese government and calling TikTok “the spy in America’s pocket.”

TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter said the hearing had been “dominated by political grandstanding” and largely ignored the First Amendment implications of a nationwide ban.

Free-speech groups also noted the omission. Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Post it was “extremely concerning” that members of Congress didn’t acknowledge that “banning TikTok would have an impact on free speech.”

“The government can’t impose this type of total ban unless it’s necessary to prevent extremely serious, immediate harm to national security,” she said in a statement. “There’s no public evidence of that type of harm, and a ban would not be the only option for addressing that harm if it did exist.”

The only reference to the First Amendment during the five-hour hearing came when Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas) asked the company’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, if he supported it, then asked whether he supported “genocide,” as part of a line of questioning related to China’s record on human rights.

How TikTok ate the internet

In Washington, in addition to voicing concerns that China’s laws could require ByteDance to turn over sensitive data about Americans to the Chinese government, critics have argued that TikTok’s opaque algorithm could be used to amplify Chinese Communist Party messaging, though they have not provided evidence that this has happened.

TikTok’s supporters say such speculation isn’t enough to merit a nationwide ban that could demolish one of the country’s most popular platforms for creative expression and undermine America’s free-speech ideals.

TikTok executives have said the company has not promoted or censored videos to satisfy Chinese government requests. Chew, who testified before Congress during a hearing on Thursday, told The Washington Post last month that a ban would unfairly silence Americans’ voices at home and undermine their “cultural leadership” around the world. In his testimony, Chew told lawmakers that “TikTok will remain a platform for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government.”

Ioana Literat, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who studies youth political expression on social media, said banning a platform of TikTok’s prominence and cultural significance would instantly eliminate a place where many young people are building relationships and establishing their personal viewpoints.

“Peer groups are so important at this stage in life, and TikTok is their hangout space,” Literat said. “It affords connectivity among users, which is so important from a political stance, an activist stance, an identity-formation stance. They’re really learning how to participate in public life through platforms like TikTok.”

TikTok also has become a source of information and news across many American age groups. One-third of TikTok’s U.S. viewers said they regularly use the app to learn about current events, Pew Research Center said last year.

The possibility of a ban has raised alarms among America’s biggest free-speech and civil liberties groups. In a letter signed by PEN America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, and sent Wednesday to congressional offices, the groups urged the government to resolve its concerns about TikTok without resorting to “an ill-advised, blanket approach that would impair free speech and set a troubling precedent that could curtail free expression worldwide.”

For “the tens of millions of young Americans who use TikTok,” they wrote, “to witness a popular social media platform summarily shut down by the government will raise serious questions in the minds of a rising generation about the sanctity of free speech in our system of governance.”

It may also not withstand legal scrutiny. When the Trump administration attempted a similar ban in 2020 of WeChat, a Chinese app with one-tenth TikTok’s current U.S. user base, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler blocked the order by saying it would “burden substantially more speech than is necessary” to further the government’s national security interests.

TikTok that year also sued the Trump administration, saying at the time that President Donald Trump’s executive order banning TikTok would “strip the rights of [its] community without any evidence to justify such an extreme action.” The company dropped the lawsuit after the Biden administration reversed Trump’s order in 2021.

On TikTok, many creators have shared videos in recent weeks discussing how a TikTok ban would silence a platform that has shaped their lives. Some have pointed out how other U.S.-owned social networks, including Facebook, have enabled foreign propaganda efforts without facing the same consequences.

TikTok has become a growing source of America’s news, with The Post and other media organizations using it to reach millions of followers. The White House last year invited popular TikTok influencers to a special briefing on its Ukraine policy, saying the app was “a critically important avenue in the way the American public is finding out about the latest” information on the war. And President Biden hosted a group of TikTok influencers last fall as part of a Democratic initiative to introduce viewers to Washington ahead of the midterm elections.

A ban on TikTok also could undermine U.S. lawmakers’ attempts to gain young people’s attention and trust. Freshman Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-N.C.) has gained more than a million TikTok followers with his videos on the strange reality of policymaking: One video discussing Congress’s response to bank runs, which he recorded last week around 2 a.m., has been viewed more than 25 million times. One commenter said, “This is how all elected representatives should be addressing and updating their constituents.”

Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-N.C.) shared his thoughts on the failure of Silicon Valley Bank in video posted to his TikTok account on March 13. (Video: @jeffjacksonnc/TikTok)

Jackson, 40, said he spends a couple of hours each week writing scripts for his two-minute videos, then records the footage from a tripod in his kitchen. For security purposes, the congressman — a former Army reservist and Afghanistan war veteran who now serves on the House Armed Services and Science committees — uses a personal phone on which TikTok is the only installed app.

“Filming in a house with three kids is all about finding 10 minutes of consecutive silence,” said Jackson, who said he edits the videos himself using Adobe Premiere after his children go to bed on Saturday night. “Other people choose to spend their Saturday evenings differently,” he joked.

Jackson said he uses TikTok because it’s the best platform for reaching young people, many of whom are suspicious or dismissive of political leadership. He said he takes a “vegetable-based approach to political communication” that he hopes will win back voters’ trust.

“We are already saturated with people who want to give us the daily talking points for the daily outrage. I don’t need to add to that,” he said. “I just try to be a person who speaks to them directly, and over time hope to earn some respect back.”

He has also been surprised at how many people have responded. In February, he recorded a video explaining the U.S. government’s policy toward Taiwan, expecting the subject matter would make it a “complete dud.” Instead, more than 2 million people have watched.

“As it turns out, just being a halfway-sensible person and speaking directly to people in a normal tone of voice about serving in Congress is compelling for a lot of people,” he said.

It has also had the surprising effect of changing his status in the eyes of his 14-year-old son. “Every once in a while, he’ll offer half a compliment, like, ‘Hey, man, good shares on that video,’” he said. “And I can tell it really pains him. It’s so sweet. I don’t rub it in.”

Facebook paid GOP firm to malign TikTok

Congressional Republicans have argued that TikTok’s value is compromised, given the risk it could be used to spy on Americans, with some, like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), saying it poses a “bigger threat” than the Chinese spy balloon that floated over the United States last month.

That case also revealed TikTok’s increasingly prominent role as an online square for real-time commentary and debate. Many TikTok videos then featured criticism of the Chinese government, as well as factual videos detailing the events and explaining the U.S. government’s response.

Some lawmakers have questioned how authentic TikTok’s popularity really is. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said he suspected that the more than 360 million views of the app’s #stopwillow hashtag — a reference to environmental activists’ viral campaign to stop a multibillion-dollar drilling project in Alaska that Sullivan has fought to approve — had possibly been boosted by Chinese propagandists.

“Maybe that’s the good work of some of the Lower 48 environmental groups,” he said at a congressional news conference, “or maybe that’s the Chinese Communist Party trying to influence young Americans on an issue” because they are “scared to death of American energy dominance.”

Neither he nor his office could provide any evidence for what he called “a crazy notion.” The Post has interviewed many young activists about the campaign.

Sullivan is a co-sponsor of the RESTRICT Act, a recent White House-backed legislative proposal that would give the government more power to ban or limit foreign-owned apps. In previous statements, Sullivan has said: “The Chinese Communist Party can crush freedom of speech in their own country. They shouldn’t be able to crush it in this country.”

But Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, whose agency would have expanded authority under the act, said in a Bloomberg interview this month that she worried a full-on TikTok ban could infringe on America’s constitutional protections around speech. “However much I hate TikTok — and I do, because I see … [what] it serves kids — you know, this is America,” she said.

Among TikTok users in the United States, a nationwide ban would be extraordinarily unpopular, according to a Post poll released Wednesday. About 20 percent of those who used the app in the past month said they supported a ban, compared with nearly 50 percent who opposed one. (Of those who didn’t use TikTok, more than 50 percent said they supported a ban and 35 percent were unsure.)

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who has more than 158,000 TikTok followers, said Washington lawmakers should not let “fearmongering” over TikTok’s ownership undermine a platform that Americans are using to learn about the world and share their lives.

“I’ve had supporters in my district tell me things like, ‘You are reaching a new audience: My 11-year-old niece follows your TikTok,’” Bowman said. “Everyone can’t find their voice in those other spaces, and people have found their voices on TikTok. We shouldn’t be banning that.”

Bowman, who hosted a news conference Wednesday on the U.S. Capitol grounds alongside TikTok creators to discuss how a ban would affect free expression, said he wants Congress to push for broader industry rules that would hold all tech platforms to the same rules around privacy and content moderation.

“I support comprehensive regulations of Big Tech overall. That is absolutely needed,” he told The Post. “So let’s have that conversation. Let’s not single out TikTok because they happen to be a Chinese-owned company, and let’s not facilitate another ‘red scare,’” he said, referring to the anti-communist fear campaign in the United States after World War II.

Wong, the Mandarin-language TikToker, said he doesn’t entirely trust the app, given the risk that it could be influenced by the company’s “ultimate boss” in Beijing. He said he had a video — comparing the “white paper” protests that swept through major cities in China last year to the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests crushed by Communist forces in 1989 — temporarily suspended for “abusive behavior” and had his account temporarily blocked in December, raising his concerns about political censorship.

A TikTok representative said the video was removed due to an error by the app’s moderation team, which is primarily based in the United States but also includes overnight coverage by moderators in Europe and Singapore, and restored within two minutes of Wong’s appeal. His account, the representative said, was also erroneously suspended and reinstated within a day. Both the video and his account remain online, and many of his TikTok videos have been watched tens of thousands of times.

Even with his doubts, Wong said, TikTok’s undeniable reach among young people all over the world has made it a powerful tool for political advocacy and promoting the truth.

“You don’t know what will happen,” said Wong. “But I am not afraid. I’ve tried my best to put my voice on TikTok to resist.”

Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.