The problem with TikTok’s claim of independence from Beijing
“ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. It is a private company,” TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said during the March 23 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Right, ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, is a private company, but refusing control from the Chinese government might not be a safe option for the company’s China-based executives, given the government’s track record of punishing the country’s business executives for not toeing the party line.
While the U.S. government publicly mulls over what to do with TikTok, including a possible ban, the Chinese government continues to quietly strengthen control over the country’s tech industry and its kingpins. The latest casualty is Bao Fan, a billionaire and star tech investor.
In mid-February, Bao vanished. Days later, his firm released a terse statement saying he was cooperating with an unspecified investigation. People close to Bao were dismayed by the detention. Just a month before, the billionaire was in a buoyant mood, telling his employees to “go forward boldly” during his firm’s annual party.
It’s not uncommon for Chinese authorities to forcibly “disappear” business executives, a practice that has increased in recent years under President Xi Jinping. Some executives have never been heard from again. Some have returned to work as if nothing had happened. Some ended up going to prison. Some even mysteriously died when incarcerated.
Here are some well-known cases: In 2015, Xu Ming, real estate tycoon and once the eighth richest man in China, died of “a heart attack,” according to authorities, in a Shanghai prison at the age of 44, months before he was due to be released. Xu was swiftly cremated; it was unclear whether an autopsy was performed. In 2017, Whitney Duan, one of China’s richest women, disappeared in Beijing. Four years later, she called her United Kingdom-based ex-husband to warn him not to publish a new book telling their story and exposing the business dealings of China’s top leaders.
In 2020, Jack Ma, founder of the technology company Alibaba and one of the best known names in China, disappeared for three months after he publicly criticized China’s financial regulators. He since has been living abroad, according to media reports. In 2022, five years after Chinese security agents abducted and disappeared the Canadian-Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua from a Hong Kong hotel, a Shanghai court sentenced him to 13 years in prison.
Although circumstances differ, all these people’s cases have one thing in common: secrecy. Beyond occasional brusque statements accusing business executives of corruption or other crimes, the government does not disclose details surrounding their disappearances. Families and friends are threatened by the authorities not to speak publicly. Discussions on the Chinese internet are quickly censored. There is no free press to do independent investigations.
And there is certainly no independent court where the disgraced executives can get a fair trial. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) effectively controls the police, the prosecutor’s office and the courts.
This is the terrifying environment under which the most successful business people in China operate, and they know the price of opposing — or even appearing to oppose — the CCP can be extraordinarily steep.
ByteDance executives unquestionably know that too. When they were called out for insubordination, they rushed to confess sins and vowed to rectify. In 2018, China’s media regulator shut down one of ByteDance’s products — the joke app Neihan Duanzi — for “vulgar” content. The company’s founder, Zhang Yiming, issued a self-effacing public apology for deviating from “socialist core values” and pledged to ensure that the CCP’s “voices are emphatically broadcasted.”
TikTok genuinely might want to be like any other popular American social media company — whose business models unfortunately usually involve collecting massive amounts of personal data and relying on recommended algorithms that amplify misinformation and hate speech, while failing to protect the rights of vulnerable users — but the fact that TikTok is a Chinese company makes it extremely vulnerable to CCP demands. And the CCP has a record of making private Chinese companies carry out its political deeds, including censoring and surveilling Americans.
While there’s no definitive evidence that TikTok is following Beijing’s direct or even indirect orders — TikTok has repeatedly issued assurances that it hasn’t and won’t spy for the CCP — we simply do not know much about the inner workings of the company or any other social media company. After all, there is no U.S. law that requires platforms to explain to users how they moderate content or use automated tools. There is also no law that forces platforms to be audited or subject to external scrutiny.
Yaqiu Wang is a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter @Yaqiu.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.