The CEO of TikTok admitted to the US Congress that executives of his parent company belong to the Chinese Communist Party

Shou Zi Chew

US lawmakers questioned TikTok‘s CEO about data security and harmful content on Thursday, responding with skepticism during a tense committee hearing to his assurances that the popular video-sharing app prioritizes user safety and should not be banned.

Shou Zi Chew‘s testimony came at a crucial time for the company, which has reached 150 million US users but is under increasing pressure from US officials. TikTok and its parent company ByteDance have found themselves embroiled in a broader geopolitical battle between Beijing and Washington over trade and technology.

In a rare bipartisan effort to reign in power over a major social media platform, Republican and Democratic lawmakers pressed Chew on a number of issues, ranging from TikTok’s content moderation practices, how the company plans to protect users’ American data from Beijing and its espionage.

“Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, said in her opening statement. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path of more control, more surveillance, and more manipulation.”

Chew, a 40-year-old Singaporean, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that TikTok prioritizes the safety of its young users and denied allegations that it is a national security risk. He reiterated the company’s plan to protect US user data by storing all of that information on servers maintained and owned by software giant Oracle.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent for China or any other country,” Chew said.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers asked him if he is in regular communication with Bytedance CEO Liang Rubo, to which Chew said yes.

Also when asked about other Bytedance technology board members in Beijing who are even regime officials in China, Chew did not deny that this was true.

On Wednesday, the company sent dozens of popular TikTokers to Capitol Hill to pressure lawmakers to preserve the platform. It has also been running ads all over Washington that promise to protect user data and privacy and create a safe platform for its young users.

TikTok has been dogged by claims that its Chinese ownership means user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government or could be used to promote narratives favorable to the country’s communist leaders.

In 2019, The Guardian reported that TikTok was instructing its moderators to censor videos that mentioned Tiananmen Square and other images unfavorable to the Chinese regime. The platform says it has since changed its moderation practices.

ByteDance admitted in December that it fired four employees last summer who accessed data from two journalists, as well as others connected to them while trying to trace the source of a leaked report about the company.

For its part, TikTok has been trying to distance itself from its Chinese origins, saying its parent company ByteDance is 60% owned by global institutional investors like the Carlyle Group. ByteDance was founded by Chinese businessmen in Beijing in 2012. In response to a Wall Street Journal report, China said it would oppose any attempt by the United States to force ByteDance to sell the app.

Chew pushed back on the idea that TikTok’s ownership was itself an issue. “Trust is about the actions we take,” Chew said. “Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns.”