In front of Congress, TikTok’s CEO was a pariah. In China, he’s a hero.

By 03/24/2023
In front of Congress, TikTok’s CEO was a pariah. In China, he’s a hero.

On March 23, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew endured five hours of intense grilling from the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Though the app’s leader attempted to reassure Congressional leaders that Project Texas can secure the data of American TikTok users, he struggled to get his point across.

Despite Chew’s trip to Washington, Congress is still attempting to pass the RESTRICT Act, which would categorize TikTok as a national security threat and ban it in the United States. But the TikTok CEO’s marathon hearing did accomplish at least one thing: It made him a hero in the home country of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance. On the Chinese social media platform Weibo, users described Chew as a “lonely hero” and “courageous gentleman” who stood up to American aggression.

“TikTok’s hearing shows that the two parties can find common ground — as long as they have the CEO of a social media platform to serve as their punching bag,” reads a popular Weibo comment shared by The Washington Post. Chew’s composure isn’t the only quality of his drawing attention in China — some commenters have remarked on his good looks as well.

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Chew’s newfound fame is good news for TikTok. His harsh treatment in Congress has painted him as a scrappy underdog, whether that’s a fair characterization or not. But another Washington Post report does not bode well for the app: According to a poll conducted by the publication, 41% of Americans support a federal TikTok ban, while only 25% of them oppose it.

The gap between those two percentages changes dramatically depending on which age group you look at. Unsurprisingly, only 17% of daily TikTok users support the U.S. ban, while 54% of them are against it. If you look at respondents who did not use TikTok in the past month, those numbers are essentially reversed (54% for, 12% against).

And there’s no secret about who the daily TikTok users are. The Washington Post found that 59% of 18-to-34-year-olds use the app. Among older demographics, that percentage steadily decreases. Just 15% of Americans 65 and over spend time on TikTok.

The respondents supporting the U.S. TikTok ban cited the app’s ability to spread false information and its effect on teens’ mental health as two main issues that informed their beliefs. Chew’s Congressional testimony isn’t likely to change those opinions, but even in the West, the TikTok CEO has become a sympathetic character. Widely-shared tweets criticized the Committee’s harsh behavior toward its guest and its casual assumptions of Chew’s Chinese heritage. (Chew was born and raised in Singapore.)

So while Chew did not win over Congress, he did win in the court of public opinion. The RESTRICT Act may still pass, but how much of its nationwide support will erode before that happens?

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