HomeTechnologyTikTok’s CEO Navigates the Limits of His Power

TikTok’s CEO Navigates the Limits of His Power

TikTok lately tried to tamp down considerations from U.S. lawmakers that it poses a nationwide safety risk as a result of it’s owned by the Chinese language web firm ByteDance. The viral video app insisted it had an arm’s-length relationship with ByteDance and that its personal govt was in cost.

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

However in actual fact, Mr. Chew’s decision-making energy over TikTok is proscribed, in accordance with 12 former TikTok and ByteDance staff and executives.

Selections in regards to the service — together with strikes to emphasise livestreaming and procuring on TikTok — are made by Zhang Yiming, ByteDance’s founder, in addition to by a high ByteDance technique govt and the top of TikTok’s analysis and growth crew, mentioned the individuals, who declined to be recognized for concern of reprisals. TikTok’s progress and technique, that are led by ByteDance groups, report to not Mr. Chew however to ByteDance’s workplace in Beijing, they mentioned.

The preparations illustrate the tightrope that Mr. Chew, 39, walks as the top of one of many world’s hottest social apps. Since being appointed TikTok’s chief govt in Might 2021, he has needed to navigate presenting himself to the West because the autonomous chief of a worldwide service whereas fulfilling the calls for of the app’s Chinese language mother or father.

Mr. Chew faces mounting challenges. As TikTok has stormed its means onto individuals’s smartphones and accrued an estimated 1.6 billion month-to-month energetic customers, its ByteDance ties have raised considerations that it might be siphoning off individuals’s information to Chinese language authorities. In latest months, U.S. lawmakers and regulators have more and more questioned TikTok’s information practices, reigniting a debate over how the USA ought to deal with enterprise relationships with international corporations.

On Wednesday, TikTok’s chief working officer testified in Congress and downplayed the app’s China connections. On Thursday, President Biden signed an govt order to sharpen the federal authorities’s powers to dam Chinese language funding in tech in the USA and to restrict its entry to non-public information on residents.

In an e-mail, TikTok mentioned Mr. Chew was in the end liable for the app’s product and technique selections. ByteDance mentioned he was aware of the corporate’s enterprise.

Little is thought about Mr. Chew and the way he operates TikTok. However the former TikTok and ByteDance staff mentioned he had targeted on bringing monetary self-discipline to the app throughout a worldwide downturn. He has tightened budgets, shuttered advertising experiments and laid off staff in North America because the app has moved extra operations to Singapore, they mentioned. Mr. Chew has additionally met with international enterprise executives and European regulators.

In a gathering late final yr, one TikTok worker requested the place Mr. Chew noticed the app in 100 years. “I simply wish to earn cash subsequent yr,” he mentioned, in accordance with three individuals who had been on the decision.

However ByteDance has extra management, others mentioned. “If he didn’t wish to do one thing ByteDance needs 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 Middle for Impartial Research, an Australian suppose tank, mentioned of Mr. Chew.

Mr. Chew has acknowledged a well-recognized relationship with ByteDance that dates to when he helped put money into the agency practically a decade in the past.

“I’ve stayed very near the parents at ByteDance due to my early relationship with them,” he mentioned in a March interview with the billionaire investor David Rubenstein, whose agency, the Carlyle Group, has a stake within the Chinese language large. Mr. Chew added that he had turn out to be aware of TikTok as a “creator” and amassed “185,000 followers.” (He gave the impression to be referring to a company account that posted movies of him whereas he was an govt at Xiaomi, one in all China’s largest cellphone producers.)

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

Mr. Chew, who’s fluent in Mandarin, grew to become DST’s level man in China. He clinched among the most profitable offers in Chinese language web historical past, together with 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 funding in Xiaomi.


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In 2013, Mr. Milner requested Mr. Chew to fulfill Mr. Zhang, who had based a information aggregator app known as Jinri Toutiao. The 2 constructed a rapport, and an funding car related to Mr. Milner led a $10 million financing in Mr. Zhang’s firm that very same yr, three individuals with data of the deal mentioned.

The information aggregator finally grew to become ByteDance — now valued at round $360 billion, in accordance with PitchBook — and owns TikTok; its Chinese language sister app, Douyin; and varied schooling and enterprise software program ventures.

By 2015, Mr. Chew had joined Xiaomi as chief monetary officer. He spearheaded the system maker’s 2018 preliminary public providing, led its worldwide efforts and have become an English-speaking face for the model.

“Shou grew up with each American and Chinese language language and tradition surrounding him,” mentioned Hugo Barra, a former Google govt who labored with Mr. Chew at Xiaomi. “He’s objectively higher positioned than anybody I’ve ever met within the China enterprise world to be this unimaginable dual-edged govt in a Chinese language firm that wishes to turn out to be a worldwide powerhouse.”

In March 2021, Mr. Chew introduced that he was becoming a member of ByteDance as chief monetary officer, fueling hypothesis that the corporate would go public. (It stays privately held.)

Two months later, TikTok appointed Mr. Chew as chief govt, with Mr. Zhang praising his “deep data of the corporate and business.” Late final yr, Mr. Chew stepped down from his ByteDance function to give attention to TikTok.

TikTok had been and not using a everlasting chief govt since August 2020, when Kevin Mayer, a former Disney govt, left after the Trump administration’s effort to sunder the app from its Chinese language mother or father. China was additionally cracking down on its home web giants, with Mr. Zhang resigning from his official roles at ByteDance final yr. Mr. Zhang stays concerned in resolution making, individuals with data of ByteDance mentioned.

Mr. Chew moved to ascertain himself as TikTok’s new head throughout visits to the app’s Los Angeles workplace in mid-2021. At a dinner with TikTok executives, he sought to construct camaraderie by conserving a Culver Metropolis, Calif., restaurant open previous closing time, three individuals with data of the occasion mentioned. He requested attendees if he can purchase the institution to maintain it open longer, they mentioned.

On journeys to the USA, he has met with Ari Emanuel, the top of Endeavor, the expertise and media firm; Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief govt; and the commissioner of the Nationwide Basketball Affiliation, Adam Silver, to construct potential industrial relationships, in accordance with 4 individuals with data of the conferences.

ByteDance has stored optics in thoughts in selecting TikTok chief executives, 5 individuals with data of Mr. Chew’s appointment mentioned. Mr. Mayer, who was primarily based in Los Angeles, was employed as a result of he was an American at a time when TikTok wished to look distinct from its Chinese language mother or father, they mentioned. Mr. Chew straddles the Western and Chinese language enterprise worlds, with Singapore providing a hedge in opposition to any potential crackdown from China or the USA, they mentioned.

However each Mr. Mayer’s and Mr. Chew’s energy as TikTok’s head has been circumscribed by ByteDance, 5 individuals with data of the corporate mentioned.

Modifications to TikTok’s core app and its options run by Mr. Zhang; ByteDance’s chief govt, Liang Rubo, who was Mr. Zhang’s school roommate; Zhao Pengyuan, a ByteDance technique govt; and Zhu Wenjia, the top of TikTok’s analysis and growth crew, the individuals mentioned. ByteDance executives direct TikTok’s growth by seeing what occurs first on Douyin, its Chinese language counterpart, they added.

Some who’ve labored with Mr. Chew mentioned they had been unclear about how nicely he understood the platform, which has continued rising. Some staff had been introduced in to show Mr. Chew, who has 7,600 followers on his account, the newest TikTok tendencies to spice up his presence, two individuals aware of the plan mentioned.

Mr. Chew has largely been energetic round TikTok’s funds and operations, the individuals aware of his actions mentioned.

Final October, he shelved a multimillion-dollar advertising marketing campaign for a TikTok NFT venture involving the musical artists Lil Nas X and Bella Poarch. He reprimanded TikTok’s international head of promoting on a video name with Beijing-based leaders for ByteDance after some celebrities dropped out of the venture, 4 individuals aware of the assembly mentioned. It confirmed that Mr. Chew answered to increased powers, they mentioned.

Mr. Chew additionally ended a half-developed TikTok retailer off Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, three individuals aware of the initiative mentioned. TikTok briefly explored acquiring the naming rights of the Los Angeles stadium previously often called the Staples Middle, they mentioned.

He has additionally overseen layoffs of American managers, two individuals aware of the choices mentioned, whereas increase groups associated to belief and security. In its U.S. advertising, the app has shifted its emphasis from a model that begins tendencies and conversations towards its utility as a spot the place individuals can go to be taught.

In Might, Mr. Chew flew to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Financial Discussion board, talking with European regulators and ministers from Saudi Arabia to debate digital technique.

Extra lately, he has defended TikTok’s information practices. Within the app’s June letter to U.S. lawmakers, he famous that ByteDance staff in China may achieve entry to the info of People when “topic to a collection of sturdy cybersecurity controls.” However he mentioned TikTok was within the means of separating and securing its U.S. person information underneath an initiative often called Challenge Texas, which has the app working with the American software program large Oracle.

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

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