Shou Zi Chew is 40 years old and has just 23 TikTok posts and 17,000 TikTok followers to his name. He is the CEO of the Chinese-owned app.
Quite sweetly, Chew’s content is mundane and fairly millennial, documenting him buying chicken or boating on a lake. Users have noticed the irony: “Bro the TikTok CEO with 41 likes,” one person commented on his video of the outdoors. “Shout out to this small creator,” another wrote.
The CEO’s profile (literally, as in his face) has been on display, especially in the west, more now than ever as he attends the anticipated summit before a US congressional committee, answering to lawmakers’ concerns over the Chinese government’s access to US user data, as well as TikTok’s impact on the mental health of its younger user base. The stakes are high, coming amid a crackdown on TikTok from the US to Europe. In the past few months alone, the US has banned TikTok on federal government devices, following similar moves by multiple states’ governments, and the Biden administration has threatened a national ban unless its Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance, sells its shares.
As is telling from his lack of presence on his own app, Chew operates largely in the background, staying under the radar as the company promises regulators increased transparency. There’s a lot riding on Chew’s first congressional appearance, which might explain why, in recent months, he’s been on a publicity tour. In addition to various interviews, Chew has been quietly meeting with lawmakers as he gears up for his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
TikTok has been far from inactive in responding to complaint in the past. The app says it spent more than $1.5bn on security efforts and started the process of deleting the US user data that was backed up to its storage centres in Virginia and Singapore after it started routing all US traffic through Oracle-owned servers in the US. The company also recently announced it was limiting screen time for its under-18 users to one hour.
While Chew only came on board in 2021 as TikTok CEO, he was an early investor in ByteDance, founded in 2012, before it began to develop short-form video apps, according to an interview with David Rubenstein, the founder of private investment firm and ByteDance investor the Carlyle Group.
Whether his subdued and private persona brings more pros or cons to TikTok’s reputation is a great question. “The mystery of ByteDance and TikTok and the uncertainty around whether they are doing anything that’s unscrupulous is part of the problem,” said Matt Navarra, a social media consultant and founder of the industry newsletter and podcast Geekout. “So [Chew’s] lack of profile and lack of awareness of who he is may be a blessing, but also it might be a downfall given people want to understand TikTok and ByteDance to understand what the level of risk is.”
This month marks Chew’s first time in the US hot seat – although it is not a first for the app itself. Chew, who once interned at Facebook, has echoed the same sentiment since he started at TikTok: the company is not beholden to the Chinese government. “TikTok has never shared … US user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honour such a request if one were ever made,” Chew will say on Thursday, according to written testimony posted ahead of the hearing.
In the past, Chew has pointed out that while ByteDance is based in China, TikTok itself is not available for download in China and all US user data is stored in Virginia with a backup in Singapore.
Several civil liberties and privacy advocates argue banning TikTok would amount to censorship, and that concerns over data security would be best addressed through a federal privacy regulation that limits how much user data all tech companies can collect and share with government agencies and third parties. The argument appears to have fallen flat and industry experts appear sceptical there is much Chew could say to assuage lawmakers’ concerns.