TikTok CEO Won't Say Whether Company Could Be Forced To Give Data to China

Chinese law mandates companies to cooperate with its intelligence agencies

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew / Getty Images
March 24, 2023

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew during a House hearing on Thursday dodged questions from Congress about what would happen if the Chinese government forced the company to turn over American user data under China's national intelligence law.

During the hearing, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R., Texas) pressed Chew about the vulnerability of user data in light of China's 2017 national intelligence law. The law requires Chinese companies and citizens to cooperate with the government's intelligence services when asked and prohibits them from disclosing this work.

Crenshaw said this law would apply to TikTok's parent company ByteDance, which is based in Beijing, and to TikTok's China-based employees.

"ByteDance owns TikTok. … And the [Chinese Communist Party] owns ByteDance, because the CCP owns everybody in China," said Crenshaw. "So by law they can make them do whatever they want, and they say that by law you can't tell anyone about it. So they can make you hand over that data, is that correct?"

Chew said that TikTok "built something where we took the data and put it out of reach."

"Out of reach?" said Crenshaw. "But they own you?"

Chew repeated that "we put it out of reach," but he declined to explain how this would prevent TikTok's China-based owner from seizing the data.

Chew's evasiveness could add to concerns from lawmakers and national security officials, who have warned about the China-linked social media app's data-mining and the likelihood of Beijing seizing this information for intelligence surveillance. While TikTok has said it is developing a U.S.-based storage system, known as "Project Texas," to protect user information, its CEO's testimony to the the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday failed to convince critics on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R., N.D.) raised a similar question during the hearing.

"If the CCP demanded that ByteDance hand over all of the data that they had on U.S. users in their possession, and ByteDance refused, I wonder what would happen?" he asked.

"I wonder if Jack Ma might have an opinion on that, and I wonder if he'd be allowed to give it," Armstrong added, a reference to the billionaire founder of China's Alibaba Group, who vanished from public sight in 2020 after criticizing the Chinese government's financial regulators.

"Under [People's Republic of China] law, all Chinese companies, including TikTok, whose parent company is based in Beijing, are ultimately required to do the bidding of Chinese intelligence services, should they be called upon to do so," said Sens. John Thune (R., S.D.) and Mark Warner (D., Va.) in a statement. "Nothing we heard from Mr. Chew today assuaged those concerns."