The Senate Judiciary Committee grilled social media CEOs today on Capitol Hill, questioning the executives on a range of topics from the prevalence of child abuse material on their platforms, to the mental health effects of the platforms, as well as what they called national security concerns over the apps.
One platform that came in for particular scrutiny was TikTok, which the U.S. government has long questioned over its ties to the Chinese government.
TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs, but the company is domiciled in the U.S. and Singapore. Despite that, politicians from both parties have framed the company as a threat, often in terms of competition with China and fears of the country’s influence.
At the hearing, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) grilled TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew over links to the Chinese Communist Party, leading to accusations of racism on Cotton’s part on social media over the way Cotton framed the questions.
Cotton told Chew that the U.S. sanctioned TikTok as a “Chinese military company”—and claimed that President Joe Biden’s administration later reversed that decision. In 2020, former president Donald Trump signed an executive order claiming that ByteDance “might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States,” and ordered the company to sell its assets to American owners.
That was a position that the Biden administration later affirmed, and there have been a series of bills and legal efforts, including at the state level, to ban the app in the U.S.
Cotton questioned Chew, who was born in Singapore, about his citizenship, including asking him if he’d ever applied for citizenship in another country.
“No, and I served my nation for two years,” Chew said, citing the mandatory conscription all male Singaporean citizens are required to undertake when they turn 18.
Cotton also asked Chew if he had any other passport but his Singaporean one, including if he’d ever applied for an American passport, given that his wife and children are American.
“Not yet,” Chew replied.
“Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?” Cotton asked.
“Senator, I’m Singaporean, no!” Chew answered.
While the government has alleged strong links between TikTok and the Chinese Communist Party, only Chinese nationals are allowed to join the Chinese Communist Party. That restriction was put into place at the 8th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, according to reporting by the Chinese Communist Party-owned newspaper Guangming Daily.
Chew, who was born in Singapore and doesn’t have Chinese nationality, can’t join the Chinese Communist Party. Cotton’s implication about Chew, who is Asian, led to posters online calling out Cotton, saying the questions appeared racist.
“Tom Cotton ‘they all look alike,’ He’s such a raging xenophobic POS,” posted @Out5p0ken.
“Not all Asians are Chinese,” added @goLoko77.
Others accused Cotton of knowing what he was doing given his background.
“Senator Tom Cotton is a Harvard School of Law graduate,” posted @SuzanaDeng. “He knows that China and Singapore are not the same. He also knows what he is doing with this line of questioning, throwing red meat to the base.”