Two years ago, Shou Zi Chew was a rising star in global tech and finance but little known in the U.S. A little over a decade ago, he was an intern at Facebook. Today, he runs a wildly successful and controversial tech company, and he’s on the hot seat on Capitol Hill.
In the run-up to the hearings, Chew and TikTok have been on something of a public relations blitz in the U.S. The CEO has used broadcast and social media to preview his lines of defense: TikTok is safer than most apps; the company has implemented safeguards to avoid security issues; and, most fundamentally, the government in Beijing has no ownership or authority over its data.
“TikTok has never shared … U.S. user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made.”
It’s not at all clear that the prehearing campaign will have the desired effect for TikTok or its CEO, who is clearly hoping to win hearts and minds in the court of public opinion, if not on Capitol Hill.
Whatever their views about the issue — or about China — all those TikTok users and various lawmakers in Washington may just now be getting around to wondering: Who exactly is Shou Zi Chew?
A meteoric rise
Chew was born and raised in Singapore before higher education took him around the world. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from University College London in 2006 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 2010. At some point during his time at Harvard, he noted on a website that he was working at a certain “social media company.”
That company was Facebook.
In the decade that followed, Chew moved between the worlds of technology, social media and finance. He worked at the internet investment firm DST Global and Goldman Sachs before joining the Chinese smartphone behemoth Xiaomi — a competitor of Apple and Samsung, among others. In 2015, Chew became Xiaomi’s chief financial officer and helped spearhead the company’s 2018 public debut on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. With a valuation of nearly $50 billion, Xiaomi was at the time one of the largest-scale Chinese tech listings on the Hong Kong exchange.
“He is a very intelligent interlocutor and savvy investor,” Jing Qian, managing director of the Center for China Analysis at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told Grid. Jing called Chew “a rising star” who “really shone at Xiaomi, leading its successful investment strategy.”
Chew’s relationship with TikTok began in 2013 — though as a financial backer rather than an employee. He was an early investor in TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance.
When Chew took the reins, he was the company’s third boss in less than a year — Kevin Mayer had served as CEO for three months, and Vanessa Pappas in a temporary capacity before Chew took over. Even then, TikTok was staring simultaneously at a monumental opportunity and profound challenge: staggering growth propelled by hundreds of millions of users worldwide — along with growing pressure from regulators in the U.S. and other parts of the world.
“Shou represents a new generation of chief executives for multinational corporations made in China,” said the Asia Society’s Jing. “Young and well educated, globally minded with a nuanced view of China’s political realities — but they are all trapped in the geopolitical tension between U.S. and China now, trying to find a way to survive.”
Two years later, Chew is making that case on Capitol Hill.
A low profile — until it wasn’t
Considering that he runs one of the most popular apps in the world, Shou Zi Chew is relatively disengaged from social media platforms. He has no Twitter profile, and while his Instagram account has 4,000 followers, Chew has never posted on it.
Until recently, that low profile was reflected in Chew’s overall, under-the-radar approach to management. That has changed by necessity; the glare of the spotlight on TikTok has grown too strong, and the threats of bans and other measures too real. Hence, the efforts TikTok has been making to put the CEO in front of the public — via a spate of interviews, meetings with lawmakers in advance of the hearings and the prerelease of his prepared testimony.
The prehearing campaign
Chew’s best case may involve a free-speech argument — for certain lawmakers who dislike legislative measures that rein in public dialogue — or a pitch to the younger demographic that loves TikTok. That’s a group that matters particularly to Democrats.
But in the current atmosphere in Washington, where bipartisan suspicion of China and Chinese influence is a staple, it’s hard to see a smooth path for Chew or his app. Meanwhile, Thursday’s hearing is that rare thing: a hearing on Capitol Hill that’s of interest to 150 million young Americans.
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