Shou Zi Chew | Glitch in the reel 

The Singaporean CEO of TikTok says his company has evolved into a global enterprise, but it continues to face concerns about privacy and data security

March 26, 2023 02:39 am | Updated April 24, 2023 11:54 am IST

In December 2022, at a New York Times summit, journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin asked Shou Zi Chew, the CEO of TikTok, “For the older folks here, who should we be following on TikTok?” The response: “Oh (laughs), please follow me! I only have 10,000 followers on TikTok.” The deal was indeed true. 

Mr. Chew did not possess the same recall value as others in the social media story of Silicon Valley. However, over the past year, the TikTok CEO has been seen recurrently saying he is a Singaporean and lives in the city. This appeared to be particularly tactical — an attempt to rest concerns as his company defends itself from allegations about the involvement of the Communist Party of China.

Recently, the platform, as any other tech entity in dire straits would, tried to shore up public confidence and put forth a worthy defence. In the run-up to his testimony before the U.S. Congress on Thursday, Mr. Chew took to the platform informing that he would outline the steps taken for users’ safety and “inspiring creativity and spreading joy”. He opened by thanking the community for 150 million monthly active American users on the platform before moving to caution that a potential ban would take the app away from them. 

Road to Bytedance 

The third-generation Singaporean attended the University College of London and then the Harvard Business School. During his military conscription, Mr. Chew served as an officer in the Singapore Armed Forces. Mr. Chew once said he is an “amateur theoretical physicist”, who “hardly understands the mathematics behind the more complex theories” but finds it very interesting. 

After graduating from business school, Mr. Chew joined prominent tech investor Yuri Milner’s venture fund DST Global. For the next five years of his life, he earned a living by finding worthy Internet-related investments. It was during his tenure at DST Global that he oversaw the investment made in TikTok’s parent company — Bytedance

In 2015, Mr. Chew switched to smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi as its Chief Financial Officer (CFO), going on to run its global operations. It was during his stay that Xiaomi completed its IPO. Interestingly, DST Global Fund had also invested in Xiaomi. He joined Bytedance as its CFO in 2021. He was promoted as the CEO of TikTok in just five weeks, succeeding Kevin Mayer who had earlier exited the company within months of his joining. His actions emanated from the larger political environment — the particular trigger being then U.S. President Donald Trump raising concerns about data privacy and national security. 

As for Mr. Chew, he later said, he found the product “amazing”, separately adding, “I have known the team for a long-time, I believe the mission that I truly believe in so when the opportunity came, it was pretty organic.”

Mr. Chew has time and again emphasised the importance of privacy, safety, and building trust. However, his company and its operations continue to face allegations of data breach

Bytedance was founded by Chinese entrepreneur Yiming Zhang in 2012 and TikTok was launched in 2016. Mr. Chew has held that the company, though founded by Chinese entrepreneurs, has evolved into a global enterprise. Interestingly, a New York Times profile held that Mr. Chew’s power in the organisation was limited. It said the app’s growth and strategy are spearheaded by Bytedance executives who report to the company’s office in Beijing, not to the CEO. The China-based parent company also owns the indigenous version of TikTok called ‘Douyin’. Bytedance developed the underlying basic technology for both apps. Furthermore, all employees of the app, including those in China, had access to U.S. citizens’ data and could contribute to shaping algorithms. The Chinese government had also acquired a 1% stake in Bytedance’s Beijing Douyin Information Services Ltd. Mr. Chew reasoned that it was necessary for obtaining news licence in China for their other applications. 

The centrepiece of the CEO’s defence has been “Project Texas” for which they have spent $1.5 billion and founded a special subsidiary, the TikTok U.S. Data Security Inc. The idea is to host and store all U.S. citizens’ data in an American-headquartered company. Nevertheless, the legacy data still stands unsecured while in transition. 

The Biden administration has now threatened to ban TikTok in the U.S. unless the company’s Chinese owners divest their stakes in it. China has firmly opposed any forced sale of TikTok.

As the popular social media company is getting caught up in the U.S.-China tensions, Mr. Chew’s space as the CEO is shrinking further.

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