Who Is TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, and Why Did He Testify Before Congress?

tiktok ceo shou zi chew gesturing while speaking into a microphone
Who Is TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew?Getty Images
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Time might be running out for popular social media app TikTok to avoid a full ban in the United States. Lawmakers across the country—including more than half of the 50 states—have already restricted access because of security concerns over the app’s handling of user data and possible connections to the Chinese government.

In an effort to address those concerns, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced five hours of questioning Thursday from the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Support among federal lawmakers to prohibit the platform has grown in recent weeks, with the Senate even introducing a bill on March 7 to allow for just that.

TikTok—the video-sharing app that launched in China in 2016 as Douyin and became a global phenomenon after a 2018 merger with Musical.ly—now has more than 150 million monthly users in America and is expected to generate more than $11 billion in U.S. ad revenue by 2024, according to Axios.

Chew became the TikTok’s CEO in 2021 and is now at the center of the debate. Here is what you need to know about the entrepreneur and the controversy surrounding the app.

Who Is Shou Zi Chew?

Chew, 40, was born in Singapore. According to the New York Post, he is married to investment firm executive Vivian Kao; the couple have two children.

Chew attended an elite high school in Singapore and completed the country’s mandatory military service before attending University College London. He graduated in 2006 with an economics degree.

According to the Associated Press, Chew worked for two years at Goldman Sachs before moving to the states to pursue a master’s from the Harvard Business School. He and Kao met over email in 2008 after they were both admitted to the school, according to Harvard’s alumni magazine. They both earned master’s degrees in business administration in 2010. Chew also had a two-year internship at Facebook.

After Harvard, he worked for five years at venture capital firm DST Global and facilitated investment into what is now ByteDance, the Beijing-based company that owns TikTok. He also worked for five years at a Chinese smartphone company before he was named TikTok CEO on April 30, 2021.

ByteDance is worth an estimated $300 billion as of September 2022, according to Entrepreneur magazine.

Cornell University professor Brooke Erin Duffy told the Associated Press in a recent interview the American public is relatively unfamiliar with Chew compared to other social media giants like Facebook Cofounder Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, most people might not have heard of him until he posted a video to TikTok earlier this week discussing the threatened United States ban and asking users what they wanted him to discuss during his testimony.

Why Did Chew Testify Before Congress?

tiktok ceo shou zi chew looking away from photographers
Photographers swarm TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew during his testimony in front of U.S. Congress members on March 23.Getty Images

President Joe Biden and his administration are threatening to ban TikTok in the United States unless ByteDance agrees to sell off its share of the platform. The app is already prohibited on federal government devices.

According to the Associated Press, the FBI and Federal Communications Commission have warned that ByteDance can share user data, such as browsing history and location, with the Chinese government. A 2017 law in China requires companies to submit any data relevant to national security to the government, though there is no evidence of TikTok ever doing this.

The U.S. Senate introduced a bipartisan bill on March 7 called the RESTRICT Act that would grant Biden’s administration the authority for a ban. Under the proposal, if the Commerce Secretary—currently Gina Raimondo—determines that any transaction through any app from a foreign adversary poses “undue or unacceptable risk” to national security, the president can take action, up to and including forced divestment.

However, as NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn explained in a March 10 segment, many legal experts believe a ban would run into legal issues regarding free speech. The 1988 Berman Amendment says that films, books, and digital media must be able to flow freely between the United States and hostile countries.

During his testimony on Thursday, Chew said the data that the app collects is similar to that of other companies like Facebook or Twitter. “We are committed to be very transparent with our users about what we collect,” he said, according to CNN.