Who Is Shou Zi Chew, the TikTok CEO Trying to Reassure America?
WASHINGTON—TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew has navigated both Western and Chinese business over the course of his fast rise to the corner office.
That cultural straddle has helped land him the top job at one of the world’s biggest tech companies. His background also provided a potential connection with a skeptical American Congress. Many members have threatened to ban TikTok, saying its Chinese ownership poses a national-security threat.
But on Thursday, the 40-year-old Singaporean army reservist and former Goldman Sachs banker faced a hostile House panel as he tried to reassure Americans their data is safe and Beijing won’t be able to influence what viewers see on TikTok. Hours before the testimony, Beijing said it would oppose a forced sale of the app from its Chinese owners, something the Biden administrationhas demanded.
That amped up the hearing’s geopolitical dimensions, thrusting Mr. Chew into the middle of souring U.S.-China relations. House lawmakers then pummeled TikTok’s chief executive over the popular app’s ties to China.
The congressional hearing was peppered with withering attacks on TikTok from both Democrats and Republicans, running more than five hours and underscoring growing concern about Beijing’s potential influence over the app.
Born and raised in Singapore, then educated in London and at Harvard Business School, Mr. Chew spent some of his early career cutting deals for a venture-capital firm in Asia. He then quickly moved to the C-suite as the chief financial officer of a Chinese smartphone giant at age 32.
He runs TikTok from offices in Singapore, but travels often, including frequently to the U.S. He met his wife, a Taiwanese-American who grew up in Bethesda, Md., at Harvard.
Relatively unknown for the boss of one of the world’s most popular apps, Mr. Chew was sharply questioned by some of the company’s more skeptical critics on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Aides to the Republicans who control the committee say there is essentially nothing Mr. Chew can say that would change their mindsas they threaten a nationwide ban.
In an interview from the company’s WeWork offices in Washington, he said he views Thursday’s hearing as a chance to explain what TikTok is trying to do, and to get feedback from Congress members—not a last-gasp effort to save TikTok’s American business.
“I look at it as an opportunity to do that, not a do-or-die” moment, he said.
The corporate stakes for Mr. Chew are as high as they get for a CEO facing such an appearance in Washington. Some Congress members from both major parties are pushing for a nationwide ban of the video app, citing national-security threats. The Biden administration is demanding TikTok divest itself from its Chinese parent ByteDance Ltd. or face such a ban.
Critics say China could force TikTok to hand over American user data or influence what American viewers see on the app. TikTok has said it has never received such a request and would refuse to comply with one.
Mr. Chew took over the top job after Kevin Mayer, a high-profile Walt Disney Co. alum, left his post after three months, while the Trump administration pursued an earlier effort to force a sale of TikTok to U.S. investors.
He is a native English speaker who, like most Singaporeans, is of Chinese ancestry. His father worked in construction and his mother in bookkeeping. He said he was uprooted from a modest upbringing at age 12, when high marks on a national exam sent him to an elite high school.
Mr. Chew was put on an officer track during his mandatory 2½ years of military service. That added 10 years to his eligibility for reserve duty, which ends when he is 50.
The hardest physical experience of his life, he said, was the military’s five-day survival course in Brunei’s jungles. He built a hut, cooked wild yams and trekked 55 miles. At one point during such courses, trainees are given a live quail that they can kill with their hands before skinning and cooking it. In the interview, Mr. Chew didn’t want to discuss what he did with his bird.
After the military, Mr. Chew attended University College London and remained in the British capital to work as a banker for Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
Following an internship at Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook and business school, Mr. Chew worked for venture-capital firm DST Global. His high-school-level Mandarin qualified him to be its China-focused partner.
In 2012, he visited the Chinese equivalent of a Silicon Valley garage: an apartment in Beijing’s university district. Thirty people, including a chef, crammed in to develop an app that suggested news articles to people based on factors such as how much time they spent on previous stories.
The company was ByteDance Ltd., which would later go on to create TikTok. Its founder, a young Zhang Yiming, won over Mr. Chew. He and his partners invested in the company.
“The idea is so simple but so powerful: that you should be looking at content not based on who you know, but really based on your own behavior,” Mr. Chew said.
Another investment Mr. Chew led was in Xiaomi Corp., a Chinese smartphone giant with global ambitions. Xiaomi brought him over first as chief financial officer, and then had him run its business outside China. One thing that stood out among colleagues was his grasp of both Chinese and Western business cultures.
“He’s perfectly bicultural,” said Hugo Barra, a former Xiaomi executive who worked with Mr. Chew. “That’s a critical asset for an executive of a Chinese company trying to become a global company.”
Mr. Chew led Xiaomi to an initial public offering in 2018, but its shares struggled immediately afterward, during a difficult financial period for Chinese tech companies.
In 2021, Mr. Zhang, who had kept in touch with Mr. Chew, asked the Singaporean to become the finance chief of ByteDance, which in addition to TikTok operates other popular Chinese apps. Mr. Chew did that for two months until he and the founder decided he would be better off running TikTok.
TikTok has rolled out billions of dollars of spending aimed at siloing off the app from its Chinese owners, and it said it would hire Oracle Corp. to independently monitor against any interference by Beijing. The measures amount to what the company says is an unprecedented effort to assure Americans their data is safe—one that keeps TikTok unprofitable for now.
TikTok faces the ban from Washington while it continues to be hugely popular across the country. Mr. Chew, in his own TikTok video on Tuesday, appealed directly to American users, calling attention to the possible ban. In the video he said the app had 150 million users in the U.S., almost half the country’s population.
Mr. Chew said he accepted the commerce committee’s invitation because he wanted to address misconceptions about TikTok, both to Congress and the American public. “There are some things [being said] that are outright just wrong about our company, and we do need to clarify it,” he said in the interview.
Woo, S. (2023, March 23). Who Is TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew? WSJ. https://www.wsj.com/articles/tiktok-ceo-shou-zi-chew-congress-8ed38010