In light of growing global skepticism of TikTok, which may result in a US ban on the Chinese app, the emphasis has now shifted to the app’s enigmatic CEO, Shou Zi Chew.
Thursday, the 40-year-old Singaporean will testify in front of the US House Energy and Commerce Committee regarding the app’s data security and privacy standards, as well as its potential ties to China.
It is unknown how he functions or how much control he actually possesses within the company.
Vanessa Pappas, the chief operations officer of TikTok, has been the company’s public face and was questioned by Congress last September about American data transfers to China.
A September 2018 New York Times feature, citing former TikTok and ByteDance officials, suggested that Mr. Chew’s decision-making authority is limited and that ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming controls the company.
Yet TikTok is suddenly putting Mr. Chew in the spotlight, at a time when its ties to the Chinese government are under intense investigation.
In a letter to lawmakers last June, the company took pains to clarify that he is not Chinese but “a Singaporean headquartered in Singapore,” emphasizing that it acts independently of its parent company ByteDance.
Born and bred in the city-state, he attended an exclusive Chinese-language school and speaks English and Mandarin fluently. During his mandatory military service, he served as an officer in Singapore’s armed forces, a prestigious role.
Mr. Chew earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from University College London before attending Harvard Business School, where he earned an MBA and interned at social media behemoth Facebook when it was still a startup.
According to media accounts, he worked at the investment firm DST for five years, where he led the team that became early investors in ByteDance in 2013. Two years were spent as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs.
Mr. Chew went on to play a prominent role at Chinese smartphone giant Xiaomi, where he served as chief financial officer and president of international business, and led the company through its 2018 initial public offering.
In March 2021, he switched ship to ByteDance, becoming the first individual to hold the position of chief financial officer of the media company.
Two months later, he assumed the post of CEO of TikTok, following the abrupt resignation of his predecessor Kevin Mayer and the Trump administration’s attempts to force the sale of TikTok’s American assets.
Mr. Chew now confronts one of the greatest challenges of his career with TikTok, as US politicians have demanded that the company sell its US assets or face a ban.
The problem has also become a subject of contention for the Chinese.
In an editorial published on Tuesday, the state-run Global Times said that the movement for a TikTok ban is motivated by a “toxic US political atmosphere” and would violate free market principles. “In the eyes of American leaders and lawmakers, TikTok’s Chinese heritage is ‘original sin,'” the report continued.
In recent months, Mr. Chew appears to have launched a type of charm offensive in response to intense scrutiny from both sides.
He created his own TikTok account, @shou.time, in February 2017 to share snippets of his personal life, about a year after assuming leadership of the site. Since then, Mr. Chew’s over 18,000 followers have witnessed him attending Super Bowl and NBA events, meeting celebrities such as Bill Murray, and painfully attempting to dance with Ciara.
He has participated in the media circuit, stating in interviews that he is a golf fanatic and Kevin Hart fan. The father of two, who is married to the CEO of an investing firm, has also stated that his children are “too young” to use TikTok.
In recent days, he has repeatedly reassured major US media outlets that TikTok poses no threat to American interests.
He has also explicitly requested assistance from the app’s US users. In a video broadcast to the official TikTok account on Monday evening in Washington, he encouraged users to tell him what they want to say to Congress.
In the video that has received more than 500,000 likes, he says: “This comes at a crucial juncture for us. This could remove TikTok from the hands of all 150 million of you.”