National Security & Defense

The Senate Is Failing the TikTok Test

(Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Senator Chuck Schumer understands well the national-security threat posed by leaving one of the country’s most popular media platforms in the hands of a foreign adversary. “TikTok is not as innocent as it sounds,” he said. “It is owned by a Chinese-based AI company called ByteDance. Just about every company like this is controlled or owned by the government.”

Right on all counts. The thing is, that was February 2020, and Schumer has so far failed to express any support for the House-passed legislation to force ByteDance to sell TikTok beyond his vague statement about how the Senate may be able to make progress on the question.

As it returns from recess today, the Senate approaches a hinge point. The bill’s outcome is a barometer of how serious American politicians are about dealing with the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party.

The ByteDance bill’s fate in the Senate will show whether our institutions can resist the political bullying campaigns executed by ByteDance’s American staff and its other hired guns (disgracefully, this includes former members of Congress). After losing last month’s House vote miserably, Team ByteDance is regrouping ahead of the Senate fight.

The Senate needs to advance expeditiously toward a final vote, while possibly entertaining amendments offered in good faith, before the lobbyists can throw sand in the gears in hopes that the start of the campaign season in earnest frustrates the legislative effort.

The bill’s proponents also must rebut the argument that because there are some U.S. citizens on the board of ByteDance, it’s a benign multinational company.

As the Australian China hand John Garnaut has revealed, the highest ranks of ByteDance’s management are stacked with members of CCP-controlled “united front” organs — which make up the unique, Leninist strategy through which the party controls non–party members, businesses, and other organizations across the world.

The Chinese government, which has a powerful “golden share” in the Chinese subsidiary, does not need to have a direct stake in the overarching ByteDance entity. It can still control TikTok through ByteDance’s internal CCP committee and its secretary, Zhang Fuping. (Recall that during his sworn testimony before Congress in March 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Chew only denied that he’s in “frequent” contact with Zhang.)

The People’s Armed Police, which is the paramilitary wing of the People’s Liberation Army, didn’t invite Zhang, who is now ByteDance’s editor in chief, to participate in a ceremony in 2017 because it wanted him to empower teenagers to make dance videos. Nor did ByteDance partner with China’s Ministry of Science and Technology to establish an artificial-intelligence research center in Beijing to help American small-business owners. And ByteDance’s 2018 agreement with China’s Ministry of Public Security — which states that the company will work on boosting the ministry’s “influence and credibility” — is certainly not about protecting U.S. users’ data.

But ByteDance is flooding the zone with talking points about the bill’s purported threat to free speech, even though the legislation’s goal is merely to force a sale of TikTok. ByteDance boosters are also pushing the claim that the bill would allow Team Biden to go after X, when, in fact, the bill would only apply to platforms controlled by designated foreign adversaries, a list currently limited to China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. (Congress would need to pass a law to expand it, and even if it were to do so, the designation of new platforms could still be blocked during a complex, multistep process whose outcome could also be reversed by the courts.)

They must resort to these disingenuous arguments because no one aware of ByteDance’s total allegiance to Beijing — through the united-front system, collaboration with Chinese government entities, and work with Chinese military companies — can defend this company’s continued control of a platform used by tens of millions of Americans.

Is the Senate serious about steeling America for prolonged confrontation with the Chinese Communist Party, or is it susceptible to cheap advocacy protecting the CCP’s interests? We will know soon enough.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.
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