China said it would oppose efforts by the United States to force a sale of TikTok, in a public rebuke of the Biden administration that leaves the app’s Chinese ownership stuck between orders from governments of the world’s two largest economies.
The comments, made by China’s commerce ministry on Thursday, came hours before TikTok’s chief executive was scheduled to testify before Congress for the first time, addressing American lawmakers’ distrust of the popular short-form video app’s handling of U.S. user data.
A commerce ministry spokeswoman said at a news conference that China would “firmly oppose” the sale of the app. Forcing such a transaction would “seriously undermine the confidence of investors from various countries, including China, to invest in the United States,” she added.
Last week, news emerged that the Biden administration wanted TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the app or face a possible ban. The ultimatum indicated that negotiations between the White House and TikTok’s ownership on a less severe compromise had stalled.
U.S. lawmakers and regulators fear that the Chinese government’s broad power over private companies in the country could enable authorities in Beijing to access the data of American users.
China’s commerce ministry said that any sale involving the export of technology must be “in accordance with Chinese laws,” a suggestion that the Chinese government could block any effort by ByteDance to divest TikTok. That could imperil TikTok’s efforts to convince U.S. officials of its independence from Beijing.
Following a previous attempt by the Trump administration to force the sale of TikTok, in 2020, China revised a list of protected technologies that analysts say would require ByteDance to obtain permission from the Chinese government to sell the app to an American buyer. TikTok’s most valuable technology is its prized recommendations algorithm, the source of its success attracting and retaining users around the world.
TikTok came up with a proposal last year, called Project Texas, to allay U.S. officials’ national security concerns. TikTok would remain owned by ByteDance, but would put all of the data generated by American users on domestic servers operated and run by Oracle, the software giant in Austin, Texas. Only Oracle and U.S.-based TikTok employees would have access to the accounts and data of U.S. users, TikTok said.
Mr. Chew is expected to continue promoting the plan in his testimony before Congress, where lawmakers are expected to ask him tough questions about the company’s efforts to secure American user data, its ties to its Chinese parent company and the risks the app may pose to teenagers and children.
In his written testimony ahead of the hearing, Mr. Chew said that ByteDance is a global company owned by international investors as well as employees. “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” he said.
TikTok and ByteDance did not immediately reply to a request for comment.