TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings, inflaming tensions

TikTok’s chief canceled his upcoming meetings with key lawmakers this week, reigniting criticism on Capitol Hill from those who say the Chinese-owned firm is avoiding accountability.

TikTok leader Alex Zhu and TikTok’s U.S. general manger Vanessa Pappas tabled meetings with several Republican senators on Monday, citing scheduling issues and the holiday rush. Zhu will try to meet with those same lawmakers after the holidays, a TikTok spokesperson told The Hill.

{mosads}”TikTok has no higher priority than ensuring Congress Members’ questions are addressed fully and transparently,” a TikTok spokesperson said. “To ensure these conversations are as productive as possible, we’re looking forward to holding these meetings after the holidays.” 

But Zhu’s last-minute cancellations are likely to inflame tensions among those senators who say TikTok poses a national security threat because it is owned by a Chinese company and collects reams of personal information on minors. 

“What is the real reason TikTok has cancelled my meeting with CEO Alex Zhu?” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) tweeted. “What are they really doing with your data and what type surveillance are they conducting on your precious children? TikTok — you owe us answers.”

“NEWS: @tiktok_us just cancelled their meeting with me this week,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has waged a one-man war against TikTok over its ties to China in recent weeks, tweeted. “Not willing to answer questions. Get a call from Beijing?”  

A source familiar with the situation disputed Hawley’s characterization, saying the effort to bring Zhu to Capitol Hill was overly rushed and the company wants to reschedule in order to successfully plan more meetings when Congress is not consumed by impeachment and other top priorities ahead of the holidays.  

Zhu also requested to meet with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a fierce China hawk, but his office said they were unable to make the scheduling work out. Cotton’s aides and TikTok held staff-level meetings earlier this week. 

This is the second time TikTok has canceled a meeting at the last minute with a senator.

Before Hawley held a hearing in November almost entirely dedicated to criticizing TikTok’s connections to China, his office was set to sit down with a group of TikTok lobbyists, who pulled out right before the meeting. TikTok then declined to send a representative to Hawley’s hearing, fueling Hawley’s criticism of the company. 

“Getting a meeting with a principal and cancelling it is not something a tech company would usually do,” a Senate Republican aide told The Hill, pointing out that the last-minute cancellations could harm TikTok’s standing among the Senate offices already questioning its practices.

TikTok, a 2-year-old social media app, has seen its popularity skyrocket over the past six months, drawing a wave of scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators. It is one of the first Chinese-owned social media networks to gain real popularity in Western markets. 

The short-form video app was downloaded 110 million times in the U.S. last year alone, blowing past Instagram as a go-to destination for young and creative users. 

But it faces an uphill battle as it seeks to earn trust in Washington, where even top Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have sent letters and made statements raising concerns about whether TikTok could be used to help China surveil U.S. citizens and whether Beijing censors the content on the platform. 

Suspicions that TikTok was censoring content spiked last month after an account belonging to a 17-year-old high school student was briefly suspended after she posted a viral video addressing human rights abuses against China’s minority Muslim population.

Chinese-owned firm Bytedance bought the U.S. app in 2017 and rebranded the short video platform as TikTok the following year. The platform, which is currently trying to build out its American roots to handle the brightening spotlight, has grown to encompass hundreds of employees and several offices in the U.S.  

There is so far little evidence to show that the Chinese government has any access to the data collected from U.S. users by the TikTok app, but that has not stemmed the wave of criticism from key senators. 

“There are credible concerns that TikTok’s moderation efforts reflect the interests and dictates of the Chinese government — even as TikTok seeks to grow in western markets,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement last month. “Democratically elected governments are justifiably scrutinizing the opaque business practices of a range of technology platforms — TikTok is no exception.” 

Tags Chuck Schumer Josh Hawley Mark Warner Marsha Blackburn Tom Cotton

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