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TikTok’s CEO Navigates the Limits of His Power

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TikTok recently tried to tamp down concerns from U.S. lawmakers that it poses a national security threat since it is owned by the Chinese web company ByteDance. The viral video app insisted it had an arm’s-length relationship with ByteDance and that its own executive was in charge.

“TikTok is led by its own global C.E.O., Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean based in Singapore,” TikTok wrote in a June letter to U.S. lawmakers.

But the truth is, Mr. Chew’s decision-making power over TikTok is proscribed, in line with 12 former TikTok and ByteDance employees and executives.

Decisions in regards to the service — including moves to emphasise livestreaming and shopping on TikTok — are made by Zhang Yiming, ByteDance’s founder, in addition to by a top ByteDance strategy executive and the top of TikTok’s research and development team, said the people, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. TikTok’s growth and strategy, that are led by ByteDance teams, report to not Mr. Chew but to ByteDance’s office in Beijing, they said.

The arrangements illustrate the tightrope that Mr. Chew, 39, walks as the top of considered one of the world’s hottest social apps. Since being appointed TikTok’s chief executive in May 2021, he has needed to navigate presenting himself to the West because the autonomous leader of a world service while fulfilling the demands of the app’s Chinese parent.

Mr. Chew faces mounting challenges. As TikTok has stormed its way onto people’s smartphones and accrued an estimated 1.6 billion monthly lively users, its ByteDance ties have raised concerns that it could be siphoning off people’s data to Chinese authorities. In recent months, U.S. lawmakers and regulators have increasingly questioned TikTok’s data practices, reigniting a debate over how the USA should treat business relationships with foreign corporations.

On Wednesday, TikTok’s chief operating officer testified in Congress and downplayed the app’s China connections. On Thursday, President Biden signed an executive order to sharpen the federal government’s powers to dam Chinese investment in tech in the USA and to limit its access to personal data on residents.

In an email, TikTok said Mr. Chew was ultimately liable for the app’s product and strategy decisions. ByteDance said he was conversant in the corporate’s business.

Little is thought about Mr. Chew and the way he operates TikTok. But the previous TikTok and ByteDance employees said he had focused on bringing financial discipline to the app during a world downturn. He has tightened budgets, shuttered marketing experiments and laid off employees in North America because the app has moved more operations to Singapore, they said. Mr. Chew has also met with global business executives and European regulators.

In a gathering late last 12 months, one TikTok worker asked where Mr. Chew saw the app in 100 years. “I just need to earn a living next 12 months,” he said, in line with three individuals who were on the decision.

But ByteDance has more control, others said. “If he didn’t need to do something ByteDance wants him to do, he might be fired and another person might be put in his place,” Salvatore Babones, the director of China and free societies on the Center for Independent Studies, an Australian think tank, said of Mr. Chew.

Mr. Chew has acknowledged a well-known relationship with ByteDance that dates to when he helped spend money on the firm nearly a decade ago.

“I’ve stayed very near the oldsters at ByteDance due to my early relationship with them,” he said in a March interview with the billionaire investor David Rubenstein, whose firm, the Carlyle Group, has a stake within the Chinese giant. Mr. Chew added that he had turn into conversant in TikTok as a “creator” and amassed “185,000 followers.” (He seemed to be referring to a company account that posted videos of him while he was an executive at Xiaomi, considered one of China’s largest phone manufacturers.)

Born and raised in Singapore, Mr. Chew studied economics at University College London and earned an M.B.A. from Harvard. In 2010, after an internship at Facebook, he joined DST Global, a enterprise capital firm helmed by the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner.

Mr. Chew, who’s fluent in Mandarin, became DST’s point man in China. He clinched among the most lucrative deals in Chinese web history, including investments within the e-commerce platforms JD.com and Alibaba and the ride-hailing service Didi. In 2011, he helped lead DST’s $500 million investment in Xiaomi.

What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the data? What’s their motivation for telling us? Have they proved reliable previously? Can we corroborate the data? Even with these questions satisfied, The Times uses anonymous sources as a final resort. The reporter and at the very least one editor know the identity of the source.

In 2013, Mr. Milner asked Mr. Chew to fulfill Mr. Zhang, who had founded a news aggregator app called Jinri Toutiao. The 2 built a rapport, and an investment vehicle related to Mr. Milner led a $10 million financing in Mr. Zhang’s company that very same 12 months, three individuals with knowledge of the deal said.

The news aggregator eventually became ByteDance — now valued at around $360 billion, in line with PitchBook — and owns TikTok; its Chinese sister app, Douyin; and various education and enterprise software ventures.

By 2015, Mr. Chew had joined Xiaomi as chief financial officer. He spearheaded the device maker’s 2018 initial public offering, led its international efforts and have become an English-speaking face for the brand.

“Shou grew up with each American and Chinese language and culture surrounding him,” said Hugo Barra, a former Google executive who worked with Mr. Chew at Xiaomi. “He’s objectively higher positioned than anyone I’ve ever met within the China business world to be this incredible dual-edged executive in a Chinese company that desires to turn into a world powerhouse.”

In March 2021, Mr. Chew announced that he was joining ByteDance as chief financial officer, fueling speculation that the corporate would go public. (It stays privately held.)

Two months later, TikTok appointed Mr. Chew as chief executive, with Mr. Zhang praising his “deep knowledge of the corporate and industry.” Late last 12 months, Mr. Chew stepped down from his ByteDance role to deal with TikTok.

TikTok had been with out a everlasting chief executive since August 2020, when Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, left after the Trump administration’s effort to sunder the app from its Chinese parent. China was also cracking down on its domestic web giants, with Mr. Zhang resigning from his official roles at ByteDance last 12 months. Mr. Zhang stays involved in decision making, individuals with knowledge of ByteDance said.

Mr. Chew moved to ascertain himself as TikTok’s recent head during visits to the app’s Los Angeles office in mid-2021. At a dinner with TikTok executives, he sought to construct camaraderie by keeping a Culver City, Calif., restaurant open past closing time, three individuals with knowledge of the event said. He asked attendees if he should purchase the establishment to maintain it open longer, they said.

On trips to the USA, he has met with Ari Emanuel, the top of Endeavor, the talent and media company; Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive; and the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Adam Silver, to construct potential business relationships, in line with 4 individuals with knowledge of the meetings.

ByteDance has kept optics in mind in selecting TikTok chief executives, five individuals with knowledge of Mr. Chew’s appointment said. Mr. Mayer, who was based in Los Angeles, was hired because he was an American at a time when TikTok desired to look distinct from its Chinese parent, they said. Mr. Chew straddles the Western and Chinese business worlds, with Singapore offering a hedge against any potential crackdown from China or the USA, they said.

But each Mr. Mayer’s and Mr. Chew’s power as TikTok’s head has been circumscribed by ByteDance, five individuals with knowledge of the corporate said.

Changes to TikTok’s core app and its features run through Mr. Zhang; ByteDance’s chief executive, Liang Rubo, who was Mr. Zhang’s college roommate; Zhao Pengyuan, a ByteDance strategy executive; and Zhu Wenjia, the top of TikTok’s research and development team, the people said. ByteDance executives direct TikTok’s development by seeing what happens first on Douyin, its Chinese counterpart, they added.

Some who’ve worked with Mr. Chew said they were unclear about how well he understood the platform, which has continued growing. Some employees were brought in to show Mr. Chew, who has 7,600 followers on his account, the most recent TikTok trends to spice up his presence, two people conversant in the plan said.

Mr. Chew has mostly been lively around TikTok’s funds and operations, the people conversant in his activities said.

Last October, he shelved a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign for a TikTok NFT project involving the musical artists Lil Nas X and Bella Poarch. He reprimanded TikTok’s global head of promoting on a video call with Beijing-based leaders for ByteDance after some celebrities dropped out of the project, 4 people conversant in the meeting said. It showed that Mr. Chew answered to higher powers, they said.

Mr. Chew also ended a half-developed TikTok store off Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, three people conversant in the initiative said. TikTok briefly explored obtaining the naming rights of the Los Angeles stadium formerly often known as the Staples Center, they said.

He has also overseen layoffs of American managers, two people conversant in the selections said, while build up teams related to trust and safety. In its U.S. marketing, the app has shifted its emphasis from a brand that starts trends and conversations toward its utility as a spot where people can go to learn.

In May, Mr. Chew flew to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, speaking with European regulators and ministers from Saudi Arabia to debate digital strategy.

More recently, he has defended TikTok’s data practices. Within the app’s June letter to U.S. lawmakers, he noted that ByteDance employees in China could gain access to the info of Americans when “subject to a series of sturdy cybersecurity controls.” But he said TikTok was within the technique of separating and securing its U.S. user data under an initiative often known as Project Texas, which has the app working with the American software giant Oracle.

“We all know we’re amongst essentially the most scrutinized platforms,” Mr. Chew wrote.

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