After a five-hour thrashing in a U.S. congressional hearing, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has emerged in China as a lone hero fighting an uphill battle against American anti-Chinese paranoia.
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 the export of Chinese technology that would need government approval.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on 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 any potential divestment. And in Washington, senior administration officials doubt they have the legal authority to ban TikTok — as some are calling for — without an act of Congress, a person with knowledge of internal government discussions told the Washington Post.
On the micro-blogging website Weibo, Chew drew sympathy from the netizens who called him a “lonely hero” and a “courageous gentleman,” applauding 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 the microblog Weibo.
“Poor Shou Zi Chew. He’s really a sheep among wolves. Any excuse will serve a tyrant,” wrote Fan Yongpeng, deputy director of the China Institute at Fudan University, in comment on the hearing.
Chinese internet users deplored how U.S. lawmakers aggressively questioned Chew, interrupting him and attempted to catch him in verbal traps.
An editorial from state-run Global Times said the hearings made America 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.”
Influential commentator and former Global Times editor Hu Xijin, meanwhile, wrote that banning TikTok would be like “detonating a nuclear bomb in Times Square” in terms of the damage to the United States’ reputation.
Still, Chinese censors and platform regulators made attempts to contain the outrage online. Several hashtags about the TikTok hearings 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 owners that had planned to do business in the American market via TikTok are having second thoughts. According to Chinese tech media outlet Huxiu, several have said they are turning their focus to Southeast Asia.
Some Chinese experts worried that TikTok’s current ordeal foreshadows what other Chinese companies in the West may soon face. Among the top 10 most downloaded apps on Apple’s App Store in the U.S., four of them were made by Chinese companies, including TikTok, online marketplace Temu owned by China-based PDD holdings, fast-fashion giant Shein, and video editor CapCut, which is also owned ByteDance.
A report from Fudan Development Institute that analyzed Twitter posts from U.S. lawmakers concluded many were “using 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 concluded that if the current trend continues, all parts of American society will risk falling prey to collective Sinophobia.
“U.S.-China competition will only worsen,” it said. “For Chinese companies going abroad, the difficulties encountered by TikTok may be just the beginning.”
Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.