The future of TikTok in the US, where it has about 100 million users, remains unknown.
The drama stems from US authorities’ accusations that TikTok has ties with the Chinese government, thus making its access to data of US citizens a matter of national security.
That is a charge the app’s owner, ByteDance, denies – but a new Financial Times report suggests that links between official Beijing and the company have in fact been close over the years.
The example given is that of Cai Zheng, a former staffer in the Chinese embassy in Tehran, who was until earlier this year at the helm of ByteDance’s Beijing-based team in charge of content policy.
Cai is not seen as a Communist Party ideologue, but his central role in determining what content was acceptable on the platform is scrutinized in light of his previous job in the diplomatic apparatus of the Chinese state.
ByteDance operates two identical apps – Douyin in mainland China, and TikTok elsewhere in the world, precisely to avoid accusations of working according to Chinese censorship rules in other markets. However, these accusations have been cropping up as TikTok became a big success in the West, culminating with President Trump’s push to place it under US control, or ban it.
The FT now says that Cai had joined ByteDance in 2018 as Douyin came under pressure in China itself for not adhering closely enough to online control and censorship imposed in the country.
The result of his work on the global trust and safety team, the report said, was TikTok suppressing videos that Beijing didn’t want on the platform, such as those addressing the Uighur Muslim issue. But the TikTok once again denied this was the case, saying the video in question was removed by mistake.
Last year, the Guardian said TikTok uses Chinese rules to censor content about Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and the Falun Gong outside of China, too – with TikTok defending itself by saying these moderation rules were old and longer applied.