TikTok’s CEO navigates the limits of his power

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TikTok lately tried to tamp down considerations from U.S. lawmakers that it poses a nationwide safety risk as a result of it’s owned by the Chinese web firm ByteDance. The viral video app insisted it had an arm’s-length relationship with ByteDance and that its personal govt was in cost.

“TikTok is led by its personal world CEO, Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean primarily based in Singapore,” TikTok wrote in a June letter to U.S. lawmakers.

But the truth is, Chew’s decision-making power over TikTok is restricted, in keeping with 12 former TikTok and ByteDance staff and executives.

Decisions about the service — together with strikes to emphasise livestreaming and procuring on TikTok — are made by Zhang Yiming, ByteDance’s founder, in addition to by a high ByteDance technique govt and the head of TikTok’s analysis and improvement workforce, mentioned the folks, who declined to be recognized for worry of reprisals. TikTok’s development and technique, that are led by ByteDance groups, report to not Chew however to ByteDance’s workplace in Beijing, they mentioned.

The preparations illustrate the tightrope that Chew, 39, walks as the head of one of the world’s hottest social apps. Since being appointed TikTok’s CEO in May 2021, he has needed to navigate presenting himself to the West as the autonomous chief of a worldwide service whereas fulfilling the calls for of the app’s Chinese mother or father.

Chew faces mounting challenges. As TikTok has stormed its manner onto folks’s smartphones and accrued an estimated 1.6 billion month-to-month energetic customers, its ByteDance ties have raised considerations that it might be siphoning off folks’s information to Chinese authorities. In current months, U.S. lawmakers and regulators have more and more questioned TikTok’s information practices, reigniting a debate over how the United States ought to deal with business relationships with international firms.

On Wednesday, TikTok’s chief working officer testified in Congress and downplayed the app’s China connections. On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed an govt order to sharpen the federal authorities’s powers to dam Chinese funding in tech in the United States and to restrict its entry to personal information on residents.

In an e mail, TikTok mentioned Chew was in the end chargeable for the app’s product and technique selections. ByteDance mentioned he was accustomed to the firm’s business.

Little is understood about Chew and the way he operates TikTok. But the former TikTok and ByteDance staff mentioned he had targeted on bringing monetary self-discipline to the app throughout a worldwide downturn. He has tightened budgets, shuttered marketing experiments and laid off staff in North America as the app has moved extra operations to Singapore, they mentioned. Chew has additionally met with world business executives and European regulators.

In a gathering late final yr, one TikTok worker requested the place Chew noticed the app in 100 years. “I simply need to make money subsequent yr,” he mentioned, in keeping with three individuals who have been on the name.

But ByteDance has extra management, others mentioned. “If he didn’t need to do one thing ByteDance desires him to do, he might be fired and another person might be put in his place,” Salvatore Babones, the director of China and free societies at the Center for Independent Studies, an Australian suppose tank, mentioned of Chew.

Chew has acknowledged a well-recognized relationship with ByteDance that dates to when he helped spend money on the agency almost a decade in the past.

In March 2021, Chew introduced that he was becoming a member of ByteDance as chief monetary officer, fueling hypothesis that the firm would go public. (It stays privately held.)

Two months later, TikTok appointed Chew as CEO, with Zhang praising his “deep information of the firm and business.” Late final yr, Chew stepped down from his ByteDance position to give attention to TikTok.

TikTok had been without a everlasting CEO since August 2020, when Kevin Mayer, a former Disney govt, left after the Trump administration’s effort to sunder the app from its Chinese mother or father. China was additionally cracking down on its home web giants, with Zhang resigning from his official roles at ByteDance final yr. Zhang stays concerned in decision-making, folks with information of ByteDance mentioned.

ByteDance has stored optics in thoughts in selecting TikTok CEOs, 5 folks with information of Chew’s appointment mentioned. Mayer, who was primarily based in Los Angeles, was employed as a result of he was an American at a time when TikTok needed to look distinct from its Chinese mother or father, they mentioned. Chew straddles the Western and Chinese business worlds, with Singapore providing a hedge towards any potential crackdown from China or the United States, they mentioned.

But each Mayer’s and Chew’s power as TikTok’s head has been circumscribed by ByteDance, 5 folks with information of the firm mentioned.

Changes to TikTok’s core app and its options run via Zhang; ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo, who was Zhang’s faculty roommate; Zhao Pengyuan, a ByteDance technique govt; and Zhu Wenjia, the head of TikTok’s analysis and improvement workforce, the folks mentioned. ByteDance executives direct TikTok’s improvement by seeing what occurs first on Douyin, its Chinese counterpart, they added.

In May, Chew flew to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, talking with European regulators and ministers from Saudi Arabia to debate digital technique.

More lately, he has defended TikTok’s information practices. In the app’s June letter to U.S. lawmakers, he famous that ByteDance staff in China might achieve entry to the information of Americans when “topic to a collection of strong cybersecurity controls.” But he mentioned TikTok was in the course of of separating and securing its U.S. person information below an initiative often known as Project Texas, which has the app working with American software program big Oracle.

“We know we’re amongst the most scrutinized platforms,” Chew wrote.

This article initially appeared in The New York Times.

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