The London-educated executive fighting for TikTok’s life

·7-min read
Shou Zi Chew - Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg
Shou Zi Chew - Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg

One of Shou Zi Chew’s pieces of life advice is to do things that make you uncomfortable.

Speaking to graduates at University College London last year, he recalled how working at the investment firm DST Global forced him to adapt.

“I didn't really have any investing experience then, but I kept trying to learn and push myself to leave my comfort zone,” he told students of the London economics department he had left 16 years earlier.

Chew will once again be out of his comfort zone this week. On Thursday afternoon, the chief executive of TikTok is scheduled to face a squad of US politicians on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Although Chew, a soft-spoken Singaporean, will be the picture of good manners, the hearing is unlikely to be mutually cordial. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican chairman of the committee, says she wants tech bosses to “answer for their companies’ destructive actions”.

TikTok, the hugely-popular Chinese-owned video app Chew runs, has been labelled a weapon of Beijing and a danger to children.

This week's appearance will be Chew’s first Washington grilling – and his most high-profile public outing – since he took charge of TikTok two years ago.

US President Joe Biden - Saul Loeb/AFP
US President Joe Biden - Saul Loeb/AFP

The hours-long hearings can make or break reputations on Capitol Hill – just ask Tim Cook, who charmed senators when under scrutiny over Apple’s tax affairs, or Mark Zuckerberg, whose nervous appearances following the Cambridge Analytica scandal failed to win his opponents over.

Chew’s appearance has more riding on it than most. Whereas Cook was fending off potential tax hikes and Zuckerberg faced tighter regulation for Facebook, Chew is fighting for TikTok’s very survival in the West.

Last week, the UK followed the US, Canada and European Commission in banning TikTok from Government devices, saying that it was a security risk for the app to have access to data such as contacts and location.

That may just be an initial step. The Biden administration last week threatened a blanket ban on TikTok unless its Chinese owners sell off their stakes in the app.

The company and its Chinese parent Bytedance strongly oppose these demands: a spokesman said that transferring ownership would do nothing to address any concerns about data gathering.

And in prepared testimony published by the committee, Chew said: "Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country."

Yet it seems unlikely that TikTok will avoid further crackdowns.

Chew’s appearance on Thursday might represent the app’s best hope of winning over citizens, if not politicians.

“I don't think he's going to try to convince Congress, that's a lost cause,” says Kitsch Liao of the Atlantic Council. “But the hearing is not for Congress, it’s for the public.”

Chew presents himself as a safe pair of hands, rather than the visionary that many tech chiefs aspire to be. His own TikTok account, with 17,000 followers, is an unremarkable collection of museum tours, clips of TikTok offices and American football games. (The NFL has a multi-year deal with TikTok).

The 40-year-old grew up in Singapore and completed the country’s mandatory military service before studying at UCL and graduating in 2006. After university, Chew joined Goldman Sachs’ London office as an analyst, where he was introduced to DST, the venture capital firm run by the Israeli investor Yuri Milner.

After winning a scholarship at Harvard Business School in 2008, he emailed a fellow Goldman Sachs employee who had been accepted, Vivian Kao. The pair bonded while taking internships in California the following summer; she at an energy company, he at a scrappy young start-up called Facebook.

Chew and Kao, who became a couple and moved to Hong Kong, where he worked at DST managing Milner’s Chinese investments. In 2013, he oversaw an investment in ByteDance, which was then a struggling start-up that had been turned down by multiple Chinese investors. It proved to be a master stroke.

The deal valued ByteDance at a fraction of the $220bn that has made it one of the world’s most valuable private companies. Its lofty price tag has stemmed from the rapid growth of TikTok, which the company set up in 2012.

Chew and Kao moved to Beijing, where he worked at the Chinese phone maker Xiaomi, before ByteDance’s founder Zhang Yiming came calling. Chew was first made chief financial officer of the Chinese parent before taking charge of TikTok.

Today, his job is to distance the app from China. Chew is based in Singapore, although regularly visits the US and European offices, and persuading American politicians takes up an increasing amount of his time.

On one visit to Washington last month, Chew held meetings with a number of sceptical Senators who had called for the app to be banned. Whatever was said behind closed doors did little to help. Democrat Senator Michael Bennet said after one meeting: “Mr Chew and I had a frank conversation, and I appreciate his time.”

But Bennet added: “I remain fundamentally concerned that TikTok, as a Chinese-owned company, is subject to dictates from the Chinese Communist Party and poses an unacceptable risk to US national security.”

Opposition to the app is a rare bipartisan issue in Washington, and the company has few public defenders on Capitol Hill.

Making Chew’s life harder is the fact that there is little he can seemingly say to change that. Concerns around TikTok do not come from anything the app has done, but what it could do.

“TikTok is owned by ByteDance and subject to [China’s national security law] which requires companies such as ByteDance to cooperate fully with China’s intelligence agencies,” Alicia Kearns, the chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said.

Hunt - Charlotte Graham/CAG Photography
Hunt - Charlotte Graham/CAG Photography

British Chancellor Jeremy Hunt revealed last week he had removed the app from his phone before an official ban was announced across Westminster, citing concerns about TikTok’s location tracking capabilities.

On Friday, it emerged that the US Justice Department was investigating TikTok over the suspected surveillance of US journalists. The company acknowledged in December that employees had misused internal data in an effort to identify suspected leaks.

The company has promised to store data in the US, cutting off Chinese access under a plan called “Project Texas”, but security officials are yet to approve the plan and calls to ban the app have only grown louder.

The company has also faced persistent concerns that its addictive recommendation algorithm could be used to manipulate Americans. Earlier this month Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, said TikTok could be a “tool” of Beijing that could be used to spread poisonous and divisive messages.

Chew has said his job is harder because unlike the 100m American TikTok users and estimated 18m in Britain, many of those calling for the app to be banned have never used it.

One of his main arguments against outlawing it – that the app is massively popular and an expression of modern Western culture – has little impact on somebody who has not experienced it.

The best Chew might hope for on Thursday is that he can put enough of a human face on the app to buy time. But time is quickly running out. More countries are restricting the app on government devices each week, while US politicians are pushing to give Joe Biden the power to ban the app nationwide.

Speaking to UCL graduates, Chew said that doing uncomfortable things were “the times I found myself learning and developing the most”. This week will certainly be a learning experience, even if it achieves nothing else.