TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew ran into a bipartisan buzzsaw during his grueling five hours of testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23rd. The main take-away is that Tik Tok’s clock is winding down in the United States so long as it remains tied to its Chinese owner, ByteDance, which in turn is under the direct influence of the Chinese Communist regime.
Mr. Chew described TikTok’s efforts to create a more secure video sharing app platform intended to satisfy U.S. officials’ concerns about the Chinese regime’s access to American users’ personal information for surveillance purposes. He also claimed that TikTok is taking seriously and addressing the harmful content posted on the video sharing app that endangers children’s lives and mental health. But Mr. Chew failed miserably, dodging question after question posed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Mr. Chew also raised eyebrows when he claimed that “ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. It is a private company.” Before the congressional hearing had even begun, the Chinese regime put the lie to Chew’s assertion. China’s commerce ministry ruled out a sale of TikTok’s so-called “private” U.S. business to an American company.
Chew would not even admit that TikTok’s parent, ByteDance, is a “Chinese company.” ByteDance, while incorporated in the Cayman Islands, is indeed a Chinese company headquartered in Beijing and fully subject to all of China’s laws.
“TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned,” said Washington Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the committee’s chair who set the bipartisan confrontational tone of the hearing.
Frank Pallone, the committee’s ranking Democrat from New Jersey, was equally critical of TikTok. “The combination of TikTok’s Beijing communist-based China ownership and its popularity exacerbates its danger to our country and to our privacy,” he said.
It is worth noting that a TikTok video was played during the hearing that showed a gun being reloaded and that referred to Rep. Rodgers and the committee by name. The video was up for forty-one days. Mr. Chew, who acted surprised, announced later in the day that the video was taken down. So much for Mr. Chew’s narrative of a benign TikTok carefully monitoring its content and removing harmful videos.
The questions from both sides of the aisle were scathing. Mr. Chew did not serve his company well with his evasive answers.
After TikTok realized that its intense lobbying effort in Washington and Mr. Chew’s congressional testimony had failed to move the dial one bit in its favor, TikTok’s communications team tweeted that its CEO “came prepared to answer questions from Congress” but was met with “political grandstanding” instead.
Vanessa Pappas, TikTok’s Chief Operating Officer globally, tweeted: “It’s a shame today’s conversation felt rooted in xenophobia.”
An article appearing in Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Communist regime, referred to the congressional hearing as “nothing more than xenophobic political grandstanding.”
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning shamelessly claimed that her government “has never asked and will never ask any company or individual to collect or provide data, information or intelligence located abroad against local laws.” She added, “We noted that some US lawmaker has said that to seek a TikTok ban is a ‘xenophobic witch hunt.’”
Ms. Mao Ning may well have been referring to far-left Democrat New York Representative Jamaal Bowman, one of TikTok’s few defenders in Congress. Rep. Bowman said that the nationwide bipartisan calls for a ban are “xenophobic” and “part of another Red Scare.”
“Xenophobia” and “political grandstanding” are labels used to smear U.S. lawmakers seeking to protect the security of the American people from prying Chinese government eyes and to protect children from harmful content posted on TikTok’s platform.
ByteDance and its U.S.-based subsidiary TikTok may be structured as “private” companies on paper. However, a thorough analysis entitled “TikTok, ByteDance, and their ties to the Chinese Communist Party,” submitted to Australia’s Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, establishes who really is in charge.
“Our research confirms beyond any plausible doubt that TikTok is owned by ByteDance,” the report’s authors wrote, “ByteDance is a PRC [People’s Republic of China] company, and ByteDance is subject to all the influence, guidance and de facto control to which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, the Party) now subjects all PRC technology companies.”
TikTok does not operate independently of its China-based parent ByteDance. They share technical and human resources.
Thus, it is no surprise that personnel working for ByteDance have had access to American users’ data collected through the TikTok video sharing app, including users’ precise locations and other sensitive personal information.
BuzzFeed reported last year on leaked recordings of internal TikTok meetings it had an opportunity to review. The report stated that “according to leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users.”
Do not think for a moment that ByteDance will disobey a demand from its masters in the Chinese Communist regime to turn over any data collected by TikTok that the regime wants, especially considering that ByteDance’s editor-in-chief is also its Communist Party Secretary.
China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law requires People’s Republic of China “entities and individuals to support China’s intelligence services by secretly turning over data collected in China or overseas,” according to the above-mentioned report submitted to Australia’s Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media. “The National Cybersecurity Law (2017) compels companies and individuals to make networks, data, and communications available to the police and security services.”
In short, ByteDance can be compelled under Chinese law to turn over data collected overseas, which would include sensitive TikTok user data, to China’s intelligence, police, and security services, no questions asked.
Connecting all these dots, it is no wonder that a strong bipartisan consensus has emerged in Congress that TikTok’s current operations in the United States pose a clear danger to U.S. national security which must be ended. Most Americans also believe that TikTok’s Chinese ties represent a national security risk, according to a March 2023 CBS News/YouGov poll, and would like to see the app banned in the United States. The only age group that opposed a ban ranged between 18 and 29.
TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew tried unsuccessfully to convince lawmakers during his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that TikTok has a fix to the security concerns, which it calls Project Texas. The concept advanced by TikTok is to create a firewall for TikTok’s American operations to protect against entities or individuals in China gaining access to American users’ data from TikTok. Oracle’s cloud infrastructure in the U.S. would store Americans’ data solely in the United States. Mr. Chew claimed that only U.S. employees would have access to U.S. data through a separate entity that will supposedly be run independently of ByteDance, called TikTok U.S. Data Security Inc. Oracle would review this entity’s software and monitor its data flows. There would also be auditing and monitoring by third parties, who would be required to provide reports to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).
Project Texas is the latest in a series of TikTok’s lame attempts to assure U.S. government officials and the American people that their data on its app would be fully protected. It is all a façade with enough loopholes to drive a truck through.
Oracle remains the linchpin in TikTok’s plan. But Project Texas’s fatal flaw is Oracle’s clear conflict of interest. Oracle (China) Software Systems Co., Ltd has its headquarters office in Beijing. Oracle is aggressively pursuing more sales of its cloud services and infrastructure to companies for use in China.
Taiwan News reported last October that a “former senior executive of Oracle’s global marketing business estimates the Chinese market accounts for about 25% of Oracle’s global revenue.” The article added that it is “difficult to assess the exact sales figures for Oracle in China because, like many Western high-tech companies, it operates through local partners such as Digital China, Great Wall Computer Software And System Limited Company, Tencent, and China Electronics Corporation.”
The Taiwan News article, referring to information obtained by CNA (Central News Agency, stated that “Oracle actively promotes military-industry and military-data platforms, as well as cloud computing technology in China” and has listed China’s defense and military partners, including “China’s three major branches of the military, and the People’s Armed Police.”
Oracle is eyeing more business opportunities in China, as The Financial District reported last November.
It is inconceivable that Oracle would risk losing its lucrative business and prospects for even more revenues from its Chinese operations by disobeying the Chinese regime’s demands for access to TikTok user data running through Oracle’s infrastructure in the United States.
Moreover, exactly what portion of total user data (including metadata) will be considered “protected” and housed solely in Oracle’s U.S-based infrastructure facilities is not clear. And, as Buzzfeed reported, “TikTok’s head of global cyber and data defense made clear that while Oracle would be providing the physical data storage space for Project Texas, TikTok would control the software layer.” He said that Oracle is “just giving us bare metal, and then we’re building our VMs [virtual machines] on top of it.”
If the Chinese regime will not permit an outright complete sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations to a U.S. company, then the only option would be a complete ban of TikTok in the United States. And it is not enough to pass legislation giving the Secretary of Commerce the discretionary authority to institute such a ban, as some lawmakers have proposed. Congress needs to mandate the ban by law and President Biden needs to sign it, whatever the political blowback from young voters who love TikTok might be.