Chinese Embassy Lobbies Congress to Save TikTok

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

I honestly don't know why the Senate continues to drag its feet with the bill that would put an end to Chinese ownership of TikTok. We get news on an almost daily basis now that indicates US data is available to Chinese engineers, contrary to the claims made by TikTok's lobbyists. Case in point, Forbes has a story up today titled "TikTok Mishandled The Data Of Hundreds Of Top American Advertisers."


For years, data about TikTok’s prized advertisers—which range from small mom-and-pop businesses to giant multinationals—was widely available to staff at both TikTok and ByteDance, according to internal documents, communications, videos and screenshots obtained by Forbes, as well as multiple sources across TikTok. That left sensitive and competitive information from the likes of Amazon, Disney and the New York Times vulnerable to being accessed or misused by employees most anywhere, including in China, a fear now at the center of federal legislation threatening to ban TikTok in the United States...

Some of the most-used programs inside TikTok’s advertising arm were built by ByteDance, according to the internal materials and five people who worked at the company in 2023 and 2024. As a result, some said, ByteDance workers had broad access not only to basics like advertisers’ emails, but also to financial agreements and tax information; data from “pixels” placed on advertisers’ websites to glean intel on customers; delicate details on how companies are targeting those customers; and creative assets that could be valuable for their competitors...

"If you're an advertiser advertising on this platform, your information [could] be accessed by global employees and distributed for other purposes,” said one source who worked in TikTok’s advertising shop, which spans New York and Texas, for two years. “The advertiser platform was done in the Wild West and wasn't done with the same things that maybe, let's say, Meta or X have done to protect advertiser information from being shared.”


Another story published a few days ago by Fortune also undermines the company's claims that US data has been isolated from the prying eyes of the Chinese parent company. Not so according to 11 former employees including Evan Turner. Turner said he was reassigned to a US based supervisor, but only on paper. In reality he was reporting to a manager in Beijing and sending spreadsheets full of US data off to ByteDance on a regular basis.

Evan Turner, who worked at TikTok as a senior data scientist from April to September in 2022, said TikTok concealed the involvement of its Chinese owner during his employment. When hired, Turner initially reported to a ByteDance executive in Beijing. But later that year, after the company announced a major initiative to store TikTok’s U.S. user data only in the U.S., Turner was reassigned—on paper, at least—to an American manager in Seattle, he says. But Turner says a human resources representative revealed during a video conference call that he would, in reality, continue to work with the ByteDance executive. The stealth chain of command contradicted what TikTok’s executives had said about the company’s independence from ByteDance, Turner says.

Turner says he never met with the Seattle-based manager. Instead, Turner had weekly check-ins lasting less than seven minutes with the Beijing-based ByteDance executive. In these meetings, Turner says he merely told the executive how far along he was in completing assigned tasks—and nothing else.

Nearly every 14 days, as part of Turner’s job throughout 2022, he emailed spreadsheets filled with data for hundreds of thousands of U.S. users to ByteDance workers in Beijing. That data included names, email addresses, IP addresses, and geographic and demographic information of TikTok U.S. users, he says. The goal was to sift through the information to mine for insights like the geographical regions where users watched the most videos of a particular genre and decide how the company should invest to encourage users to be more active. It all took place after the company had started its initiative to keep sensitive U.S. user data in the U.S., and only available to U.S. workers. 

“I literally worked on a project that gave U.S. data to China,” Turner says. “They were completely complicit in that. There were Americans that were working in upper management that were completely complicit in this.”


Finally, we're learning today that the Chinese Embassy has held meetings with lawmakers, lobbying against the bipartisan TikTok bill passed by the House.

TikTok, which is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, has repeatedly denied a relationship with the Chinese government and sought to distance itself from its Chinese origins. But now, with the fate of legislation to force the sale of the company facing an uncertain path forward in the Senate, the Chinese Embassy appears to be leveraging its political weight to protect the company’s future in the United States.

The meetings with Hill staff were initiated by the Chinese Embassy in outreach that did not initially mention TikTok, according to the congressional staffers, one of whom worked for the House and the other for the Senate, and who were granted anonymity to discuss conversations that they were not authorized to reveal publicly. The meetings, which took place with Chinese diplomats, were held after the House in March overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, the legislation that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok.

So TikTok has no connection to China or China's government, that's the story it has been telling for at least a year now, and yet the moment US legislators push the company to sell, Chinese diplomats quietly push back. When TikTok was asked to comment they accused the sources of lying.


“Since the bill’s introduction, we’ve been publicly vocal about why we oppose the ban bill,” said Alex Haurek, a TikTok spokesperson. “This so-called reporting doesn’t pass the smell test and it’s irresponsible for Politico to print it.”

Just one problem for Mr. Haurek. The Chinese embassy admitted the meetings took place. Oops! That's the only part of this story that doesn't suggest China and TikTok are cooperating behind the scenes. Michael Sobolik from the American Foreign Policy Council told Politico that the Chinese embassy had done America a favor. "By lobbying congressional staff to protect TikTok’s relationship with ByteDance, [People’s Republic of China] officials are revealing how valuable TikTok is to the Chinese Communist Party. Losing control of the app would neuter Beijing’s most potent weapon against Americans," he said.

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