Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s low-key CEO, faces down US Congress

By Satish Cheney with Matthew Walsh in Beijing

TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew, who will represent the Chinese company in a US congressional meeting Thursday, is a former banker turned tech boss whose soft-spoken persona belies his meteoric rise.

The 40-year-old Singaporean’s rapid ascent coincides with the United States and other Western governments tightening scrutiny over Chinese technology giants and their products.

Thursday’s hearing will represent a rare appearance under the spotlight for Chew, who has a low public profile even in his home country.

Born in the city-state to a family with Chinese heritage, Chew attended the prestigious Hwa Chong school before studying economics at University College London.

He worked in the British capital as a banker for Goldman Sachs and also interned at Facebook before earning an MBA at Harvard Business School.

After several years with the investment firm DST, Chew was appointed the chief financial officer of another Chinese tech success, Xiaomi, in 2015.

He moved to TikTok’s parent company ByteDance in March 2021 and soon took over as the social media app’s chief executive officer after the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, the American Kevin Mayer.

– High stakes –

TikTok has said Chew runs the company from his base in Singapore.

But it is unclear how much power Chew has to make decisions compared to ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming and other executives at the parent firm.

Western concerns around TikTok centre on whether the Chinese government has links to the app that it could use for espionage, or to push propaganda to its hundreds of millions of global users.

Governments in the United States, Britain and Canada, as well as the European Commission, have already ordered officials to delete TikTok from their phones.

The Biden administration has gone one step further, telling the company to cut ties with its Chinese ownership or face a complete ban.

The stakes are therefore high as Chew prepares to face the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he will be questioned about ByteDance’s and TikTok’s Beijing connections.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew will say on Thursday, according to prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing.

“TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, US user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honour such a request if one were ever made.”

– Low profile –

Chew himself is not a prolific TikTok user, posting less than two dozen videos since last year and boasting a mere 18,500 followers.

While some clips see him taking in the Superbowl half-time show or dancing with pop star Ciara, others centre on more homespun themes like dressing up for Halloween or visiting the British Museum.

Fluent in Mandarin and English, Chew is married to investment company CEO Vivian Kao, a former business school classmate he met over email in 2008.

They have two children and are so close they “often finish each other’s sentences”, according to a profile on the school’s website.

Like most Singaporean men, Chew also performed military service in his youth, serving with such distinction that he was made an officer, according to the Straits Times newspaper.

Under Singaporean law, that means he is required to remain an army reservist until he is 50, a decade longer than men of other ranks. — Agence France-Presse

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