TikTok’s billion-plus users long to be famous for 15 seconds. But the social-media app’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, avoids the limelight. Few of TikTok’s users would recognize the 40-year-old Singaporean, whose personal TikTok account, @shou.time, shows only 13 videos posted in the past year. He seldom gives interviews and his Wikipedia entry runs to about 150 words. Yet on March 23rd Mr Chew was thrust before the world’s cameras as he gave evidence to a committee of America’s House of Representatives.
Democrats and Republicans alike fret that TikTok, which is owned by Bytedance, a Chinese company, is a tool for spying on American users and feeding them communist propaganda. TikTok has always denied this. On Thursday Mr Chew did his best to persuade his inquisitors that he was not out to brainwash Americans, but merely to entertain them and show them ads. (TikTok will book nearly $7bn in advertising in America this year, forecasts Insider Intelligence, a data company.)
Amid this fiery debate, Mr Chew is a reassuringly boring presence. He professes to enjoy golf (always plugging #golftok) and theoretical physics. A graduate of University College London and Harvard Business School, he worked for Goldman Sachs in London and interned at Facebook before returning to Asia for a stint in venture capital. He led the international business of Xiaomi, a Chinese smartphone company, before joining ByteDance in 2021 as chief financial officer. Two months later he took over at TikTok after its previous chief executive, a former Disney executive named Kevin Mayer, quit amid a failed attempt by Donald Trump’s government to force the app’s sale to an American buyer.
With President Joe Biden now reviving plans to separate TikTok from its Chinese owner—and with speculation that China might counter by withdrawing the app altogether—Mr Chew’s job is to convince congressmen that TikTok is not a threat. He is also keen to remind them of the wrath they might face if they shut down one of America’s favorite apps. In a rare video posted this week on TikTok, Mr Chew appeared in a Zuckerberg-esque jeans and hoodie to announce that the app had passed 150m users in America. The subtext to Congress: that would be a lot of angry current, and potential, voters. ■