The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In China, embattled TikTok chief seen as hero defying bullying U.S.

The headquarters building of TikTok’s parent company in Shanghai. (Alex Plavevski/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
4 min

After a five-hour verbal thrashing in a U.S. congressional hearing, TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew has emerged in China as a lone hero fighting an uphill battle against American anti-Chinese paranoia.

On Friday, Chinese internet users, commentators and officials rallied around Chew, who before Thursday’s hearing was little known to the Chinese public. State media described the hearings as a farce and an “embarrassment” for the United States, and China’s Foreign Ministry said the process amounted to the “unreasonable suppression” of TikTok.

The ubiquitous short-video app is caught in a worsening U.S.-China rivalry that has reached new levels of mutual suspicion in recent months over allegations of espionage involving the app. The Biden administration, citing national security risks, is pushing TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their stakes in the company. Beijing has said it would oppose any forced sale on the grounds that it involves an export of Chinese technology that needs government approval.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Friday that China “has not and will not ask companies or individuals to collect or provide data information and intelligence located in foreign countries for the Chinese government in a manner that violates local laws.”

“The U.S. government has so far provided no evidence that TikTok is a threat to U.S. national security but has repeatedly made presumptions of guilt and unreasonably suppressed the companies involved,” Mao said.

TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has bristled at the notion of any potential divestment. And in Washington, senior administration officials doubt they have the legal authority to ban TikTok — a move for which some are calling — without an act of Congress, a person with knowledge of internal government discussions told The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

On the microblogging website Weibo, Chew drew sympathy from users, who called him a “lonely hero” and a “courageous gentleman,” applauding what they saw as his grace under pressure. (Many also hailed him for his good looks and pitied his bad luck.) Others ridiculed American lawmakers and the polarized U.S. political environment.

“TikTok’s hearing shows that the two parties can find common ground — as long as they have the CEO of a social media platform to serve as their punching bag,” read one popular comment on Weibo.

“Poor Shou Zi Chew. He’s really a sheep among wolves. Any excuse will serve a tyrant,” wrote Fan Yongpeng, the deputy director of the China Institute at Fudan University.

America’s online privacy problems are much bigger than TikTok

Chinese internet users deplored U.S. lawmakers’ aggressive questioning of Chew, saying they interrupted him and tried to catch him in verbal traps.

An editorial in the state-run Global Times said the hearings made the United States look like a bully in front of the world. It criticized what it called “political persecution” of TikTok and U.S. attempts to “force it to pledge allegiance to the United States.”

The influential commentator and former Global Times editor Hu Xijin wrote that a U.S. ban on TikTok would cause reputational damage to the United States akin to “detonating a nuclear bomb in Times Square.”

Still, Chinese censors and platform regulators tried to contain the outrage online. Several hashtags about the TikTok hearing appeared to have been removed. Despite the heated discussion online, no TikTok-related hashtags were among the top 50 trending topics on Weibo. One Weibo user complained that the videos posted about Chew had been deleted by the platform.

As concerns about TikTok’s future in the United States mount, some Chinese e-commerce companies that had planned to do business in the American market via TikTok are said to be having second thoughts. According to the Chinese tech-media outlet Huxiu, several have said they are turning their focus to Southeast Asia.

Some Chinese observers worried that TikTok’s ordeal foreshadows what other Chinese companies operating in the West soon may face. Among the 10 most downloaded apps on Apple’s App Store in the United States, four — including TikTok — are Chinese-made. Those apps include the online marketplace Temu, which is owned by China-based PDD holdings; the fast-fashion giant Shein; and the video editor CapCut, also owned by ByteDance.

A report from the Fudan Development Institute said that, amid intensifying mutual hostility with China, the United States could “use TikTok as a tool” to warn the American public about the threat of foreign interference as well as “create a sense of crisis.”

The report noted that, if U.S. political parties continue to play up antagonism with China and each other, then they risk fueling Sinophobia and U.S.-China competition.

“The difficulties TikTok encountered may be only a microcosm and the beginning of those faced by Chinese companies going overseas,” it said.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a conclusion made by the authors of the Fudan Development Institute report. They said American politics, not American society as a whole, was at risk of succumbing to Sinophobia. This article has been corrected.