TikTok picks CEO linked to blacklisted Chinese companies deemed national security threats by US

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TikTok selected the chief financial officer of its Chinese parent company to be its CEO.

The video sharing app, deemed a national security threat by the Trump administration, picked a leader, who, until last month, also held leadership positions in Chinese companies blacklisted by the United States over security concerns and Chinese military links.

Shouzi Chew, who already serves as the CFO of Beijing-based ByteDance, which owns TikTok, will simultaneously serve as the chief executive officer for TikTok, the company announced Friday, solidifying the influence of the Chinese parent company over the wildly popular social media app.

Chew only became CFO of ByteDance in March and, according to his LinkedIn, until last month, the Singapore-based and Harvard-trained businessman had been president of international operations for Xiaomi Technology, a Beijing-headquartered software developer the Pentagon labeled a “Communist Chinese military company” in January. He had also until March been a board member of Kingsoft Cloud, based out of the Chinese capital, which had one of its software applications blacklisted as a “national security” threat in January and has also been implicated in potential surveillance of China’s crackdown on its Uyghur Muslim population.

The selection of Chew comes after the abrupt August departure of TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer, who had been head of Disney’s streaming services before joining TikTok last March. Vanessa Pappas, based out of TikTok’s Los Angeles office, has been serving as the interim head of TikTok and will now be its chief operating officer. TikTok noted Friday that, in 2013, Chew “led a team that became one of the earliest investors in” TikTok, when the Goldman Sachs-trained investor was working at Hong Kong-based DST Investment Management.

“It's humbling to be entrusted with this responsibility, and to partner with great leaders like Vanessa to drive TikTok's unprecedented development as the global home for inspirational and creative content,” Chew said Monday. “We will continue building out our strong and deep management team as we set the stage for the next phase of TikTok's success.”

The Trump administration labeled TikTok a national security threat due to concerns that the app could be exploited by the Chinese Communist Party to obtain U.S. user data illicitly. ByteDance acquired a similar video sharing app, Musical.ly, for $1 billion in 2017, and Musical.ly and TikTok merged in 2018. A letter from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. to ByteDance in July said that “the national security risks arising as a result of the transaction include furthering the Chinese government’s ability to access and exploit TikTok user data on millions of Americans and promote a pro-Chinese Communist Party agenda in the United States through TikTok.”

TikTok hired dozens of lobbyists in the U.S. last year to defend the Chinese platform. More than 100 million people in the U.S. use TikTok.

Chew’s background at places such as Xiaomi and Kingsoft could raise concerns.

The Defense Department announced in January that Xiaomi and eight other firms were dubbed Chinese military companies, saying the Pentagon “is determined to highlight and counter the People’s Republic of China’s Military-Civil Fusion development strategy, which supports the modernization goals of the People’s Liberation Army.” This was connected to a November executive order from former President Donald Trump, which declared a “national energy with respect to the threat” posed by China’s “military-industrial complex.”

Xiaomi released a statement in January arguing it has been “operating in compliance with the relevant laws” and “is not owned, controlled, or affiliated with the Chinese military.” The Pentagon designation of Xiaomi now notes that, in March, a federal court preliminary paused the enforcement of the label against the company.

Kingsoft’s Writer, Presentation, and Spreadsheets Office was among eight software applications blacklisted by a Trump executive order in January, which argued the U.S. “has assessed that a number of Chinese connected software applications automatically capture vast swaths of information from millions of users in the United States … which would allow the PRC and CCP access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.”

That Chinese software company was also critiqued in a December report by IPVM, which describes itself as the “world’s leading source” of video surveillance information and which implicated Kingsoft in possible surveillance against the Uyghurs, stating, “Kingsoft is a separate China cloud services provider and its August 2020 Application Programming Interface available on its website includes ‘Uyghur, non-Uyghur’ face detection … Uyghurs are mentioned again in the API which detects with 48.7% confidence that a sample face is ‘Uyghur.’”

Kingsoft removed the API in response to the IPVM report and released a lengthy statement, arguing, “The Subject API was not able to distinguish or identify individuals of Uyghur background. The labelling on the basis of any race is inappropriate and inconsistent with Kingsoft Cloud’s policies and values … This misleading product is being withdrawn.”

The Trump Commerce Department backed off of a possible ban of Chinese-owned TikTok in November, citing a federal court order from late October instructing the Trump administration not to move forward with such an action against the video sharing social media app as a court battle is conducted.

The Biden Justice Department told a federal court in February that it needed to review the TikTok matter and hinted it might drop the effort altogether.

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ByteDance and TikTok have repeatedly claimed that they have not and would not turn over TikTok user data to the Chinese government, but national security experts have raised concerns about China’s 2017 national intelligence law, which requires all Chinese companies to assist Chinese intelligence services when asked — and to keep it secret.

Numerous U.S. government officials, including John Demers, the assistant attorney general of the National Security Division, have said that a national security threat is posed by TikTok. The Pentagon banned service members from using TikTok in late 2019, and numerous federal agencies also banned TikTok on government devices. The House and the Senate voted to block federal employees from using the app.





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