TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew battled for the survival of the hugely popular video-sharing app in the United States on Thursday, as he faced skeptical Washington lawmakers over the company's alleged ties to the Chinese government.
The 40-year-old Singaporean addressed the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee for hours of serious grilling by both Republicans and Democrats who fear that Beijing could subvert the site for spying or to push propaganda.
TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is under immense pressure across Western countries, with government officials in Washington, the United Kingdom and Canada forced to delete the app from their devices.
The app's gravest threat is from the United States, where the administration of President Joe Biden has set an ultimatum that the company either dump its Chinese ownership or face an outright ban.
"ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government and is a private company," Chew told lawmakers in his opening remarks.
"60 percent of the company is owned by global institutional investors. Twenty percent is owned by the founder and 20 percent owned by employees around the world," he said.
"We believe what's needed are clear transparent rules that apply broadly to all tech companies -- ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns," Chew added.
A ban would be an unprecedented act on a media company by the US government, cutting off 150 million monthly users in the country from an application that has become a cultural powerhouse -- especially for young people -- and the nation's most viewed source of online entertainment after Netflix.
Despite his assurances, the cards in Washington seemed to be stacked against Chew, with several pieces of legislation, including one bill backed by the White House, already paving the way for a ban of the app.
"Tik Tok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned," Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said as she began the hearing.
The 150 million American users on TikTok, are "Americans that the CCP can collect sensitive information on, and control what we ultimately see, hear and believe," added the Republican, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
In the final months of his term, former president Donald Trump also attempted to ban the app, but his effort was ultimately blocked by a US judge.
During that battle, a potential sale to Microsoft or spinoff to Oracle never got off the ground due to opposition in China.
The commerce ministry in Beijing said Thursday that it would "firmly oppose" a forced sale, underlining that any sale or spin-off of TikTok would require approval by Chinese authorities.
"Forcing the sale of TikTok... will seriously undermine the confidence of investors from various countries, including China, to invest in the US," added spokesperson Shu Jueting.
In a TikTok post earlier this week, Chew asked US users to defend their favorite app by sharing "what you love" about the platform with elected representatives.
On Wednesday, a group of around a dozen teenagers, teachers and business owners rallied at the US Capitol to express their opposition to a potential ban.
"Are there other platforms out there? Absolutely -- I'm on them. But none of them have the reach that TikTok has," aspiring soapmaking entrepreneur @countrylather2020 told her 70,000 followers in a video recorded after she arrived in Washington.
A sale, even if all parties agreed, would be very complicated.
The success of the platform is due to its powerful recommendation algorithm, and "separating the algorithm between TikTok and ByteDance is like a Siamese twins operation," analyst Dan Ives of Wedbush told AFP.
TikTok still hopes to appease the authorities.
Chew's testimony will promote the company's elaborate plan -- known as Project Texas -- to satisfy national security concerns, under which the handling of US data will be ring-fenced into a US-run division.
He will tell the lawmakers that TikTok has already spent $1.5 billion on the project and hired 1,500 US-based staff to launch it.
© Agence France-Presse