TikTok just became a little less Chinese and a lot more American

A real global app?
A real global app?
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
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TikTok, the first Chinese app to become a global phenomenon, has taken another step to distance itself from its Chinese roots.

The short video company appointed top Disney streaming executive Kevin Mayer as its new CEO, responsible for driving its global expansion efforts. The 58-year-old Mayer will replace Alex Zhu, the current head of the app, and a mastermind of its success. Mayer, who was the chairman of Disney’s direct-to-consumer and international business, will also become the chief operating officer of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, assuming both roles from June 1. Zhu will instead focus on ByteDance product and strategy after the appointment.

Prior to joining ByteDance, Mayer oversaw the launch of the theme park giant’s Disney+ streaming service last November, and was once seen as a promising candidate for Disney’s new CEO role. But the role was filled by Bob Chapek, former chairman of Disney’s theme parks and consumer products businesses, in February.

Lauded as “one of the world’s most accomplished entertainment executives” by ByteDance’s low-profile Chinese founder and CEO Zhang Yiming in a statement, Mayer is seen as the company’s latest attempt to convince TikTok users, especially those in the US, that it is not a Chinese company but rather an international one as it faces rising scrutiny from US lawmakers and users.

“The company is doing everything that they can to distance TikTok as an entity from ByteDance. They, perhaps rightfully, view regulators and Congress in the US as the greatest threat to their continued international growth,” said Elliott Zaagman, co-host of the China Tech Investor podcast. Zaagman says key questions remain, including how much power the former Disney veteran will really have.

The Chinese origins of the explosively popular video app, which in April reached the milestone of 2 billion downloads globally, including those of its Chinese version, has stirred worries about whether it censors content frowned on by the Chinese government, or could misuse American user data. TikTok strongly disputes both sets of concerns. ByteDance has even argued that TikTok isn’t owned by a Chinese company, noting that the parent company is incorporated in the Cayman Islands, according to the New York Times.

Nevertheless, the app has been described as a  “potential counterintelligence threat” by US senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton, and is also facing a national security review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) into ByteDance’s acquisition of the short video app Musical.ly in 2017, which was co-founded by Zhu and paved the way for TikTok’s US success. Outside China, its biggest user base is in India.

Josh Hawley, a Republican senator who had asked TikTok and Apple to attend a congressional hearing in November to answer questions about whether their business with China posed a risk to the data security of Americans, was quick to comment on Mayer’s appointment. Both companies declined to attend the hearing, with TikTok citing the short notice it was given.  Shortly after ByteDance’s announcement about TikTok’s new CEO, Hawley tweeted that the company had bowed out of the previous hearing because its executives were located in China.

“But this new executive lives in the USA. I look forward to hearing from him. Under oath,” he wrote.