TikTok’s CEO has limited command and is under pressure from US officials

It’s recent TikTok tried to quell lawmakers’ concerns United States that the social network poses a threat to American security because it is owned by a Chinese Internet company ByteDance. The viral video app has insisted that it has an independent relationship with its parent company and that it is the network’s chief executive officer.

“TikTok is led by its own global CEO, Shou Zi Chew, someone who was born and lives in Singapore,” TikTok wrote in a letter to US lawmakers in June.

But in fact, Chew’s decision-making power over TikTok is limited, according to 12 former TikTok and ByteDance employees and executives.

Decisions about the service – including measures to strengthen live streaming and purchases through TikTok – are made by him Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance, as well as senior executive director of strategy at Bytedance and head of TikTok’s research and development team, said the people, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. TikTok’s growth and strategy, run by teams at ByteDance, do not report to Chew but to the parent company’s Beijing office, the sources said.

The proceedings illustrate the 39-year-old Chew who runs one of the most popular social networking apps in the world. Since being appointed CEO of TikTok in May 2021, he has had to pave the way by presenting himself to the West as the autonomous leader of the global service, while meeting the demands of the app’s parent company.

Chew faces more and more challenges. Since TikTok has hacked into people’s smartphones and gained about 1.6 billion monthly active users, its ties to ByteDance have led to concerns that the app may be passing on user data to Chinese authorities. In recent months, U.S. lawmakers and regulatory agencies have repeatedly questioned TikTok’s practices with user data, reigniting the debate over how the U.S. should manage business relationships with foreign companies.

A few days ago, TikTok’s COO testified in the US Congress and downplayed the app’s ties to China. Twenty-four hours later, President Joe Biden signed an executive order intensifying the federal government’s powers to block Chinese technology investments in the country and limit its access to the private data of American citizens.

In an email, TikTok said Chew has the final say on the app’s products and strategic decisions. ByteDance said it was aware of the company’s operations.

Who is Shou Zi Chew?

Little is known about Chew and how he manages TikTok. But former employees of the app and ByteDance said he was focused on developing financial discipline for the app in the event of a global crisis. It squeezed budgets, ended marketing experiments and laid off employees in North America as the app moved more operations to Singapore, sources said. Chew also met with global business executives and regulatory authorities in Europe.

In a meeting late last year, a TikTok employee asked Chew where he saw the app in 100 years. “I just want to make a profit next year,” he said, according to three people present.

But ByteDance has more control, others said. “If he didn’t want to do something that ByteDance wanted, he could be fired and someone else would take his place,” Salvatore Babones, director of China and Free Societies at the Center for Independent Studies, an Australian think tank, told Chew .

Chew acknowledged a frequent relationship with ByteDance dating back to when he helped invest in the company nearly a decade ago.

“I became very close to the people at ByteDance because of my initial relationship with them,” he said in March in an interview with billionaire investor David Rubenstein, whose company, the Carlyle Group, has a stake in the Chinese giant. Chew also commented that he first encountered TikTok as a “content creator”, reaching “185k followers”. (He appears to have been referring to the corporate account that posted his videos while he was an executive at Xiaomi, one of China’s largest cellphone makers.)

Born and raised in Singapore, Chew studied economics at the University of London and earned an MBA from Harvard. In 2010, after an internship at Facebook, he went to work at DST Global, a venture capital firm run by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner.

Chew, who is fluent in Mandarin, became the head of the company in China. He has made some of the most profitable deals in Chinese Internet history, including investments in e-commerce platforms JD.com and alibaba, and a transport service via the Didi application. In 2011, he helped lead DST Global’s $500 million investment in Xiaomi.

In 2013, Milner asked Chew to meet Zhang, who had created a news aggregator app called Jinri Toutiao. The two struck up a good relationship and created an investment vehicle with Milner, who led a $10 million financing of Zhang’s company that same year, three people familiar with the deal said.

The news aggregator eventually became ByteDance — now valued at about $360 billion, according to PitchBook — which owns TikTok, the Chinese version of the app known as Douyin, and numerous education and business software ventures.

In 2015, Chew went to work at Xiaomi as finance director. He led the device maker’s initial public offering in 2018, led international efforts and became the English-language face of the brand.

“Shou grew up with American and Chinese language and culture around him,” said Hugo Barra, a former Google executive who worked with Chew at Xiaomi. “Objectively, he is the best person I have ever met in the business world in China to play this incredible role of leading a Chinese company that wants to become a global force.”

In March 2021, Chew announced that he would join ByteDance as chief financial officer, fueling speculation that the company would go public. (It remains a privately owned company.)

Two months later, TikTok appointed Chew as CEO, with Zhang praising the Singaporean’s “deep knowledge of the company and the industry.” Late last year, Chew left his role at ByteDance to focus on TikTok.

Coming to TikTok

TikTok has been without a permanent CEO since August 2020, when Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, stepped down following the Trump administration’s attempt to separate the app from its Chinese parent company. China has also been closing in on the country’s internet giants, prompting Zhang to resign from his official positions at ByteDance last year. However, he remains involved in the company’s decisions, according to people familiar with the matter at ByteDance.

Chew became TikTok’s new head during a visit to the app’s Los Angeles office in mid-2021. At a dinner with TikTok executives, he tried to create a sense of camaraderie by keeping the restaurant in Culver City, California, open after hours, three people familiar with the event said. He asked attendees if he should buy the establishment to stay open longer, sources said.

On trips to the US, he met with Ari Emanuel, head of Endeavor, a talent and media company; Bob Chapek, Chief Executive Officer Disney; and NBA commissioner Adam Silver to build potential business relationships, according to four people familiar with the meetings.

ByteDance took public perception into account when selecting TikTok’s CEOs, five people familiar with Chew’s selection said. Mayer, who lived in Los Angeles, was hired because he was American and it was a time when TikTok wanted to look different from its parent company, the sources said. Chew is comfortable in both the Western and Chinese business worlds, and Singapore offers protection from possible Chinese or American repression, they said.

But Mayer and Chew’s power as TikTok bosses is limited by ByteDance, according to five people with knowledge of how the company works.

Changes to the main TikTok app and its features are decided by Zhang; Bytedance CEO Liang Rubo, who was Zhang’s college roommate; Zhao Pengyuan, Chief Strategy Officer at Bytedance; and Zhu Wenjia, head of TikTok’s research and development team, the sources said. Bytedance executives are guiding the app’s development by looking at what happens first in Douyin, its Chinese version, they added.

Some people who worked with Chew said it was not apparent how much he understood the platform, which continues to grow. Some employees have been tapped to teach Chew, who has 7,600 followers on his account, the latest TikTok trends to boost his online presence, two people familiar with the plan said.

Chew has been particularly active in TikTok’s finances and operations, according to people familiar with its activities.

In October 2021, he canceled a multi-million dollar marketing campaign for the TikTok NFT project that included singers Lil Nas X and Bella Poarch. He berated TikTok’s global marketing chief during a video call with Beijing-based executives from ByteDance after some celebrities backed out of the project, according to four people familiar with the meeting. This showed how Chew reacted to high-ranking positions, the sources said.

Chew also closed a half-completed TikTok store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, three people familiar with the move said. TikTok briefly considered acquiring the naming rights to the Los Angeles stadium formerly known as the Staples Center, sources said.

He also oversaw layoffs of U.S. managers, according to two people familiar with the decisions, while building teams around trust and security. The app has shifted the focus of its US marketing from a brand that drives trends and conversations to its utility as a place for people to learn.

In May, Chew traveled to Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, where he spoke with European regulators and Saudi Arabian ministers about digital strategy.

He recently defended TikTok’s data practices. In a June letter from the company to US lawmakers, it said ByteDance employees in China could have access to US user data when they are “subject to a series of robust cybersecurity controls”. But TikTok is said to be in the process of separating and protecting its data from US users through an initiative known as Project Texas, in which the app works in partnership with US software giant Oracle.

“We know we are among the most vetted platforms,” ​​Chew wrote.

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