New Report Reveals TikTok Parent’s Extensive Links to Chinese Military-Surveillance Complex

People walk past a logo of Bytedance at its office in Beijing, China, July 7, 2020. (Thomas Suen/Reuters)

The revelations come at a pivotal time for TikTok’s survival in the U.S., as the Biden administration and Congress mull a crackdown.

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A report to Australia’s parliament concluded that TikTok is a foreign-interference threat.

T ikTok’s Chinese parent ByteDance is a key player in the Chinese Communist Party’s military-industrial-surveillance system, a new report says. Among its findings is that ByteDance co-founded a Chinese government-backed artificial-intelligence academy in 2018 and that it has partnered with several surveillance firms that have been placed under U.S. sanctions for their role in Beijing’s atrocities against Uyghurs.

Citing publicly available sources, the report also provides additional evidence linking ByteDance to the CCP’s paramilitary wing, hundreds of arrests in China made possible by the China-only version of TikTok, and the party’s opaque united-front political-influence system.

The new findings are contained in a 113-page dossier submitted last week to a special Australian parliamentary panel investigating the role played by Chinese government–connected companies like TikTok and WeChat in foreign meddling in Australian elections. The team of researchers included John Garnaut, a former journalist and Australian government adviser who played a leading role in bringing about Canberra’s turn against Chinese political interference in the late 2010s.

The revelations come at a pivotal time for TikTok’s survival in the U.S., as the Biden administration and Congress mull a crackdown on the popular short-video app. And with TikTok’s CEO appearing before Congress this week, the report hands the app’s skeptics new ammunition supporting the concern that ByteDance could use TikTok to promote CCP narratives.

“Our research confirms beyond any plausible doubt that TikTok is owned by ByteDance, ByteDance is a PRC company, and ByteDance is subject to all the influence, guidance and de facto control to which the Chinese Communist Party . . . now subjects all PRC technology companies,” states the introduction to the report, which is based largely on materials found online.

“In the absence of policy action, TikTok could be the next challenge to democracies’ resilience against authoritarian interference.”

Possibly the most noteworthy relationship covered in the report is ByteDance’s role, starting in 2018, to set up the Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence with Chinese government support. The plan was backed by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and Beijing’s municipal government.

According to government documents cited in the report, the program was part of a broader effort to use civilian artificial-intelligence research for military purposes.

ByteDance also allegedly collaborated with four military-linked universities on research into critical technologies. The report cites research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute labeling three of these schools, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, People’s Public Security University of China, and Tsinghua University, as “very high risk” for their extensive links to Chinese military and cybersecurity programs.

“State organizations that funded ByteDance’s research would likely have access to their findings,” the report finds. “Funders include the Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence, the Ministry of Public Security Technology Research Program, and the Natural Science Foundation of China.”

ByteDance’s links to the Chinese state’s security apparatus also include partnerships with five surveillance firms, all of which are implicated in the Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities against Uyghurs and have been placed on a U.S. government blacklist as a result. ByteDance has used voice-recognition technology from iFlyTek and facial-recognition technology from SenseTime, both of which have also allegedly worked with the Chinese security services in campaigns against Uyghurs.

Another ByteDance partner, the supercomputing firm Sugon, has taken part in nuclear-weapons simulations and the testing of hypersonic glide vehicles, according to the Washington Post.

In addition to the company’s links to Beijing’s military-civil fusion system, there’s also significant overlap between the tech company’s management cohort and Chinese Communist Party organs and front groups.

For instance, the report reveals, ByteDance’s “chief editor,” Zhang Fuping, is also the party secretary of the firm’s internal CCP cell, which studies and advances party mandates throughout the organization. Zhang’s CCP affiliation is not disclosed on any versions of ByteDance’s website, according to the document.

Zhang was the public face of a ByteDance cooperation agreement with China’s Ministry of Public Security, with which the tech firm vowed to plan “offline activities.” The Garnaut report found that ByteDance has claimed credit for helping the police solve cases, pointing to a ByteDance “anti-fraud report” that detailed 576 arrests made possible by the firm’s cooperation between January 2021 and March 2022.

Zhang also took part in a 2017 ceremony with the CCP’s paramilitary wing, the People’s Armed Police, and is pictured in the report with the organization’s political work director.

Additionally, several key ByteDance affiliates have previously held, or currently hold, membership in CCP front groups within the “united front” system — Beijing’s mechanism for influencing people who don’t hold membership in the party, such as overseas Chinese and ethnic minorities.

ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming participated in united-front groups in Fujian province before stepping down as CEO in 2021, while ByteDance board member Neil Shen was a key member of the party’s influential Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference — an agenda-setting forum for the united front.

Current company employees are involved in united-front work as well. ByteDance vice president for public affairs Feng Kaixu, the company’s deputy party secretary, and VP of government relations Chen Zhifeng are affiliated with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is another united-front group.

ByteDance responded to the report claiming that the Garnaut team’s conclusions were based on a misunderstanding of its corporate structure.

“The sources in this report refer to a subsidiary of ByteDance that is responsible solely for the company’s products and operations in China. It has no ownership of operational control over TikTok,” said ByteDance spokesperson Jennifer Banks. “This mischaracterization of our company is just one of many inaccuracies that challenge the credibility of the report. We are not dignifying the report with any further response.”

Jimmy Quinn is the national security correspondent for National Review and a Novak Fellow at The Fund for American Studies.
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