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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Burack: Don’t be fooled: China’s leaders control TikTok

By Bryan Burack
Published: March 27, 2023, 6:01am

TikTok’s CEO is asking America to trust him to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party. Let’s not.

Desperate to avoid an imminent ban of the embattled Chinese video app, TikTok CEO Shou Chew came to Washington to make the case that TikTok can be totally walled off from CCP manipulation.

In the lead-up to his testimony Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chew and the company waged a full-on influence campaign against Washington’s national security establishment, complete with implied threats, dubious promises, and of course, TikTok influencers.

Before testifying, Chew recorded a TikTok video to remind U.S. politicians that more than 150 million Americans and 5 million American businesses use the app regularly, a not-so-subtle reminder to the upwardly mobile politician that banning the app would come at a political cost.

The message must have resonated with Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., who soon became Congress’ most prominent TikTok advocate. He later told NBC News that banning TikTok would hurt President Joe Biden’s re-election prospects because the president already struggles with young voters. Perhaps we should thank him for saying the quiet part out loud.

The same day, TikTok launched a new website to compile PR material for the “U.S. Data Security” subsidiary it has established to try to avoid a ban. The site echoes the arguments made in Chew’s prepared testimony. It promises that TikTok parent company Bytedance is not a Chinese company but a “global company.” What it doesn’t mention is that Bytedance is actually a shell company in a notorious offshore tax haven, and that shell company is itself led by the same person in charge of Bytedance’s larger business in China.

Similarly, TikTok promises that the Chinese government doesn’t own a piece of Bytedance, only a separate “subsidiary.” What they don’t say is that this “subsidiary” is the core of Bytedance’s business and user base, and that important parts of TikTok report not to Chew, but to that “subsidiary.”

Without any way to verify the pledge, TikTok also promises that it has never shared information with the Chinese government, and never would. What they don’t explain is that Bytedance CEO and Chairman of the Board Liang Rubo is legally required under Chinese law to do exactly that if the government asks.

Dubious promises

Furthermore, TikTok promises that eventually every line of code will be reviewed by third parties. What they don’t say is who will be writing TikTok’s code and whether TikTok plans to separate its engineering teams from Bytedance.

These omissions make TikTok’s critical national security promises dubious at best. But the biggest red flags are also the simplest: U.S. national security officials have no confidence that TikTok’s leadership can, or will, disobey the CCP. Only a fool would believe the CCP has no interest in the sensitive personal data of 150 million Americans, when for decades the Chinese government has been hell bent on stealing sensitive information through unprecedented espionage.

TikTok and Shou Chew are making grandiose promises about engineering protection from the totalitarian reach of the CCP with complicated corporate structures and technical solutions. They’re urging Congress to look at the security protocols they’ve ostensibly put in place, to look at the popularity of their influencers, to look at the political consequences of crossing TikTok — to look anywhere but behind the curtain, where the CCP can always pull the strings.

Bryan Burack is a senior policy adviser for China and the Indo-Pacific in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.