TikTok’s CEO can’t catch a break from xenophobia in Congress

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation
Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

Today’s hearing on child safety was — mostly — an unusually focused affair. The Senate Judiciary Committee called up the CEOs of X, Meta, Snap, TikTok, and Discord and grilled them for four hours on the potential dangers their services posed for children. Many of the lawmakers emphasized emotional impact, playing to an audience filled with families who’d had kids targeted by predators or otherwise harmed online.

But midway through the hearing, it was dragged off course by a predictable tangent: the fact that TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. And a meeting ostensibly about keeping kids safe dipped into a now-familiar attempt to make TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew answer questions utterly unrelated to the rest of the day.

Although attempts to ban TikTok last year mostly fizzled, there are real concerns about its data storage policies and Chinese government influence over its moderation. Some lawmakers touched on them, asking Chew to offer an update on Project Texas, its data security initiative. (TikTok is still working on it.) But the questions also strayed into attempts to simply highlight TikTok’s un-American origins, culminating in Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) pressing Chew aggressively and repetitively on his citizenship — which, it’s widely known, is Singaporean.

“You often say that you live in Singapore,” Cotton said before demanding to know where Chew’s passport was from (Singapore, obviously) and whether he’d applied for citizenship in China or the US (no, said Chew). “Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?” he then asked abruptly, as if hoping to catch Chew by surprise. Chew’s response wasn’t shocked so much as fed up. “Senator! I’m Singaporean!” he reiterated. “No.” (Singapore is not part of China.)

The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell described Cotton’s line of questioning as “McCarthy-esque.” Chew’s relationship to China was already discussed exhaustively when he appeared before Congress last year, and Cotton didn’t make clear what it had to do with child safety here. It’s not even necessary to make the case that China might have undue influence over TikTok. Apple, for instance, has weathered years of critiques about its relationship to the Chinese government; no reasonable person has ever suggested this hinges on Tim Cook being a secret communist. Instead, it’s a line of questioning that seems simply designed to play on Chew’s foreignness — even when it’s got nothing to do with the topic at hand.