A former Chinese government official was in charge of making decisions on what content should be allowed on TikTok, the Financial Times reported in a development that raises questions about the company’s previous claim that the Chinese government had no influence over its operations.
Cai Zheng, who worked at the Chinese Embassy in Tehran from 2013 to 2018, ran the global content policy team at TikTok’s Beijing-based parent ByteDance until earlier this year, when the company moved to allow local operations in its biggest countries to make content removal decisions themselves.
According to a now-altered LinkedIn profile, Cai joined ByteDance in 2018, when the company was under scrutiny from the Chinese government over content shared on the company’s news aggregator app Jinri Toutiao.
Cai worked with ByteDance’s global trust and safety team in Beijing to form guidelines on what content was acceptable on TikTok and the company’s other international apps including Helo and Vigo Video, according to the FT report.
During Cai’s stint, TikTok was accused of removing videos critical of the Chinese government including banning an American teenager who used makeup tutorials to inform her viewers about the mass imprisonment of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region.
The Trump administration has called TikTok a security threat, repeatedly accusing the app of being influenced by the Chinese government, an allegation that TikTok and ByteDance have denied.
TikTok told Forbes that “Cai Zheng was not involved in developing TikTok’s early content policies, which predated him” but that Zheng did work with regional teams to localize these exisiting policies. In the U.S., the TikTok’s team in California had “taken on policy development” a few months after the app launched in the country.
Following the threat of a ban in the U.S., last month, TikTok announced that Oracle and Walmart have agreed to acquire a 20% stake in TikTok’s global business as part of a pre-IPO financing round. As part of this deal, Oracle agreed to acquire 12.5% of the video-sharing platform, while Walmart agreed to hold a 7.5% stake. This deal, which initially had Trump’s “blessing”, was thrown into peril after ByteDance claimed that it would still retain control of TikTok while Oracle and Walmart will serve as minority partners. Both Trump and Oracle then pushed back against this claim with the president stating that he won’t allow the deal unless TikTok’s operations are “ totally controlled” by a U.S. entity like Oracle. Since then, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said that TikTok must meet all U.S. security requirements in any deal it makes with Oracle — which will include storing code in the U.S. — or it will be forced to shut down. The Trump administration had ordered the removal of the app from smartphone app stores but the move was put on hold by a judge, who ruled in favor of TikTok, stating that Trump’s TikTok ban likely overstepped legal authority.
Former Chinese government official ran TikTok’s content policy as app went global (Financial Times)