TikTok Faces Uncertain Future after 5-hour Congressional Thrashing

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew exits the room during a break in Thursday’s congressional hearing.

WASHINGTON – TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew tried to allay mounting national security concerns about the Chinese-owned video app but encountered open hostility Thursday in his first appearance before Congress, a five-hour thrashing that underscored the popular app’s precarious future in the United States.

Lawmakers from both parties sought to tie Chew personally to the Chinese Communist Party, frequently interrupted him and called him “evasive.” While he pledged to safely steward the data of American users and shield TikTok from foreign manipulation, lawmakers from both parties criticized TikTok, without evidence, as a tool of China’s Communist government.

“TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations,” said Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Washington state congresswoman said she supported banning the app outright.

Chew’s appearance thrusts TikTok deeper into a geopolitical standoff between two great economic powers, as support for a ban swells among lawmakers and the American public.

The Biden administration has pushed TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their stakes in the company. But the company has bristled at divestment, and senior administration officials do not think they have the legal authority to ban TikTok without an act of Congress, according to one person with knowledge of internal government discussions. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private deliberations.

Hours before Chew’s testimony, the Beijing government announced that it would strongly oppose any forced sale of TikTok. Such a move would “seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China,” said Commerce Ministry spokesperson Shu Jueting.

Yet the Biden administration faces a narrowing set of options to limit TikTok, and any attempt is likely to collide with a minefield of constitutional and legal challenges.

The emergency economic authority President Biden might use to force a ban on TikTok is prohibited from being used to restrict the flow of information, said William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official. U.S. Judge Carl J. Nichols cited that provision to block President Donald Trump’s attempts to ban TikTok in 2020. A ban would also almost certainly run into First Amendment challenges related to free speech.

“The law says whatever Biden would do can’t impede the flow of information,” said Reinsch, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The idea was you did not want the United States to restrict the free flow of information.”

Spokespeople for the White House and Treasury Department declined to comment.

The White House this month endorsed legislation granting the government greater powers over foreign-owned apps, appearing to acknowledge the thorny legal path ahead. When Trump attempted to ban TikTok in 2020, federal judges ruled that the administration had not provided enough evidence to show that the national security risks outweighed the damage a ban would do to Americans’ First Amendment rights.

The hearing exposed no new evidence to support lawmakers’ unsubstantiated claims that the Chinese government has abused TikTok to access Americans’ user data or promote government propaganda. Yet lawmakers appeared atypically focused in their concerns about the national security threat of the app.

Bipartisan momentum to ban or otherwise restrict TikTok has been growing on Capitol Hill. The White House-endorsed legislation, the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act, is now backed by 20 senators from both parties, lead sponsor Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said Wednesday.

Warner and the legislation’s co-sponsor, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), said in a statement that Chew’s testimony did not assuage concerns that the company could be “required to do the bidding of Chinese intelligence services.”

Thursday’s combative hearing signaled that TikTok has reaped few rewards from months of efforts to charm Washington, which included a record lobbying blitz, ad campaign and numerous private meetings with the CEO. With few traditional allies in Washington, TikTok tapped prominent influencers to serve as its envoys to Capitol Hill. Some sat in the Rayburn House Office Building hearing room, which was so crowded that staff members were forced to stand for the marathon session.

Lawmakers who do not sit on the committee, including Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), wandered in to watch, highlighting the broad interest in Congress about Chew’s appearance.

TikTok spent months familiarizing Washington policymakers, journalists and civil society personnel with “Project Texas,” its unprecedented $1.5 billion plan to cordon off U.S. user data from the reach of the Chinese government in a new subsidiary run by a U.S.-led security firm. TikTok proposes that this subsidiary be subject to government scrutiny, suggesting that a U.S. government-approved auditor could monitor its systems.

Chew hinged his congressional testimony on Project Texas, using much of his five-minute opening remarks to tout the plan. But he immediately faced backlash from lawmakers on the panel, as the committee’s top Democrat told Chew the plan was “simply not acceptable.”

“I still believe that the Beijing Communist government will still control and influence what you do,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey. Pallone and other lawmakers offered few technical questions about such threats or why the plan was insufficient, instead repeatedly citing the company’s Chinese ownership.

The project’s name is a reference to the Austin headquarters of Oracle, the company that TikTok said it would contract with to store U.S. user data. In a sign of lawmakers’ broad opposition to the plan, Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas) told Chew to rename it.

“We don’t want your project,” he said.

In a statement following the hearing, TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter criticized the lawmakers, saying they did not acknowledge the ways small businesses use the platform or the First Amendment complications of restrictions.

“Shou came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway,” she said in a statement.

V Pappas, TikTok’s chief operating officer, tweeted that the hearing “felt rooted in xenophobia.”

In his testimony, Chew distanced himself and TikTok from China. He talked about his business school education in the United States, where he met his wife, who is from Virginia. He repeatedly reiterated that TikTok is headquartered in Singapore and the United States.

Multiple lawmakers pressed Chew on China’s role in developing and storing the application’s source code – an initiative Chew described as a “global collaborative effort,” similar to building a phone or a car with components from many countries. This did not appear to appease lawmakers, who pressed him until he said part of the code was developed in China.

Lawmakers arrived ready for the spotlight, with some bringing posters or other audiovisual props. In one contentious exchange, Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) displayed a video found on TikTok showing a gun with text reading “at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on 03/23/2023.”

“You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans where you can’t even protect the people in this room?” Cammack said.

The video appeared to have limited engagement, with 43 likes and 50 comments when The Washington Post viewed it during the hearing. Later in the hearing, Chew said the video had been removed from the platform.

Chew also dodged a question from Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) about whether he agrees the Chinese government has persecuted the Uyghur population, saying that it is “deeply concerning” to hear about all accounts of human rights abuses.

The question is one that has presented a quandary for global corporations, as companies including H&M and Nike have faced backlash in China for expressing concerns over the Uyghurs. Some U.S. brands, including the National Basketball Association, have sidestepped the issue amid increased reliance on Chinese business partners.

Chew appeared hesitant to make new commitments to lawmakers, or to endorse proposed legislation. When pressed on bills related to algorithmic accountability or privacy, Chew demurred and said he agreed with lawmakers “in principle.”

Later Thursday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed bills into law significantly restricting social media – including TikTok – for fear of harming childrens’ mental health.

Some lawmakers suggested the hearing deepened resentment of the app. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) said she came to the session hoping to hear about how the company was taking action to address her concerns. Instead, Blunt Rochester said, she left worried about the company’s advertising targeting minors and whether engineers in China are accessing American data.

“That really summarizes why you see so much bipartisan consensus and concern about your company,” Blunt Rochester said. “And I imagine that’s not going away anytime soon.”