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New DOJ Filing: TikTok's Owner Is 'A Mouthpiece' Of Chinese Communist Party

Zhang Yiming, chief executive officer and founder of ByteDance Ltd., poses for a photograph in Beijing, China in 2019.
Zhang Yiming, chief executive officer and founder of ByteDance Ltd., poses for a photograph in Beijing, China in 2019.

Updated 2:56 p.m. ET Saturday

The Trump administration is accusing the chief executive of ByteDance, the owner of video-sharing app TikTok, of being "a mouthpiece" for the Chinese Communist Party and alleging that the tech company has a close relationship with Beijing authorities that endangers the security of Americans.

The Justice Department on Friday night filed the Trump administration's most thorough explanation of its push to ban TikTok in a legal filing in response to TikTok's lawsuit asking a federal judge to stop Trump's ban from taking effect on midnight Sunday.

U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols has scheduled a hearing for 9:30 a.m. Sunday to decide whether the Trump administration's ban will take effect.

In the submission to the court, Justice Department lawyers say ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming has made public statements showing he is "committed to promoting" the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party.

TikTok has for months distanced itself from its corporate owner, ByteDance, asserting that data on the more than 100 million U.S. users is stored primarily in Virginia, with backup in Singapore.

But the Trump administration says it has evidence that some data is being transmitted to China, claiming such information can be accessed by Chinese authorities to track Americans and build dossiers that could be deployed for blackmail.

Furthermore, Justice Department officials say ByteDance is beholden to Chinese laws that may require the company to assist in surveillance and intelligence operations at the direction of the Chinese government.

TikTok strenuously denies it ever has or will in the future cooperate with any demands from China's authoritarian regime. But the Trump administration said Friday that a recent study showed that 37% of the IP addresses TikTok's Android users connect to are based in China.

The Trump administration, however, did not offer any direct evidence that TikTok's U.S. data has ever been assessed by Beijing officials.

The Justice Department filed all of the documents under seal earlier Friday, an unusual move for a government response to a motion for a preliminary injunction. Several hours later, Justice Department lawyers refiled the documents with a number of sections redacted pertaining to how exactly TikTok allegedly transmits Americans' data to China.

In a response filed on Saturday, lawyers for TikTok suggest the app is being unfairly singled out, pointing to how theoretical concerns about whether China's government can gain access to American user data can be made about a number of U.S. tech companies that have a presence in the country.

"The same is true for many American tech companies, who have substantial engineering resources in China and, in some cases, data sharing agreements with Chinese companies," TikTok lawyer John Hall wrote.

The Justice Department's federal court filing in response to TikTok's lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction to block Trump's ban from taking effect.
/ U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
The Justice Department response to TikTok's lawsuit, which seeks a preliminary injunction to block Trump's ban from taking effect, includes redacted documents.

In another document newly public on Friday that the Trump administration submitted as an attachment to its primary filing, the Commerce Department detailed its concerns with TikTok in an intelligence and security assessment.

Trump officials point to a number of instances that allegedly show that ByteDance has a cozy relationship with Beijing authorities.

ByteDance, according to the document, employs 130 Chinese Communist Party members at ByteDance's Beijing office.

In June 2018, according to the Commerce Department memo, ByteDance employees organized a party in which they faced a Chinese Communist Party flag, "raised their right hand, clenched their fists, and reiterated their guarantee as a party member and vowed to never betray the party."

Trump officials allege that although ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming is not a member of the Chinese Communist Party, he issued a public apology to the government in April 2018 over one of ByteDance's apps that appeared to have irked authorities. "Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values," Yiming said then.

Reports of Communist Party officials being embedded at ByteDance are not accurate, TikTok said in its Saturday submission to the court.

Hall, a lawyer for TikTok, said what is really driving Trump's push to ban the app is a desire to score political points.

"The reason why the Commerce Department relies on its hollow anecdotes is that national security was pretext for banning TikTok, and that the real reason was the President's wish to use such a U.S. ban, or what he could extract in return for lifting it, as political campaign fodder," Hall wrote.

The suggestion that U.S. user data goes to Chinese soil has also been strongly denied in recent court filings by the app. According to TikTok, the data on Americans is "sharded" or broken up into unidentifiable bits and stored across many different servers.

Roland Cloutier, TikTok's global chief security officer, said in a sworn statement to the court that sensitive information like names, birthdays, home addresses phone numbers and contact lists are encrypted.

"It is impossible to decrypt this encrypted user data without a key that has been generated and managed ... by our security team in the United States," Cloutier wrote.

Among the revealing details that emerged Friday in the Commerce Department memo was that ByteDance allegedly has spent $1 billion on ads on competing apps Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat in order to boost its user base. TikTok has nearly 700 million active monthly users worldwide.

Trump said he gave a tentative blessing to deal to save TikTok involving companies Oracle and Walmart. The agreement never materialized, as the U.S. firms and ByteDance appear at odds over a number of details, including what firm would hold the largest stake in the new company. TikTok acquisition talks are ongoing.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.