TikTok’s Australian boss says the popular app, which faces growing calls to be banned or restricted, is a victim of “fearmongering” about the rise of China and does not pose a national security risk.
TikTok Australian general manager Lee Hunter insisted the app’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, has “no ties” to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), even though the firm’s editor-in-chief also reportedly serves as its Communist Party committee secretary.
The federal government is set to announce a ban on TikTok on government devices within days, and the Biden administration is threatening a total ban in the US unless the app is sold to a new owner.
“We are a hot topic at the moment, we’re something that’s getting a lot of attention but the truth of it is we’re getting singled out unfairly,” Hunter told and e.
“We see a lot of accusations around us being a potential national security risk, and that’s in relation to perceived connections to China and the [Chinese Communist Party] which is just absolutely not true.”
He continued: “Whatever the geopolitical context around China, whatever your thoughts are about China – we are not China. We are an entertainment app.”
Hunter said he was frustrated he had been unable to secure a meeting with Cybersecurity Minister Clare O’Neil to outline TikTok’s position on the expected ban on government-issued phones.
He said TikTok, which has an estimated seven million monthly users in Australia, had not been consulted about the issue and had only learnt about it through media reports.
“We haven’t had a direct line of communication with the minister, and that’s something that we think is really important,” he said. “We want to be able to tell the truth of what’s happening.”
A spokesman for O’Neil did not respond to a request for comment.
O’Neil’s Home Affairs department has completed a review into social media companies such as TikTok and WeChat, examining their data harvesting practices and how to prevent political censorship and disinformation on the platforms.
Hunter said: “TikTok doesn’t operate in China, our headquarters are in Singapore and Los Angeles. Australian user data is held in the US, in Singapore. We’ve worked really hard to protect Australian user data.”
Asked about its Beijing-based parent company, he said: “For ByteDance, everything’s been set up to be very much a global company. There are no ties to the CCP, there’s no influence from the Chinese government whatsoever and for Tiktok, that’s even more stringent because the data is not held there, the leadership isn’t based there.”
A detailed report submitted last week to a Senate inquiry into foreign interference through social media said ByteDance is so tied to the Chinese Communist Party and government agencies that it “can no longer be accurately described as a private enterprise”.
To support this claim, the report cites Zhang Fuping, who is both ByteDance’s Communist Party committee secretary and its editor-in-chief.
China’s National Intelligence Law, approved in 2017, states that “any organisation or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law”.
Hunter strongly rejected claims Beijing could weaponise the app to influence public discourse to suit its interests.
“I cannot fathom how it would ever be used as a propaganda tool,” he said. “The content wouldn’t succeed, the users wouldn’t want to see it.
“And we are straying into hypotheticals that are fear-based, fearmongering, not rooted in truth, and are designed to somehow make us a tool of the CCP, which is absolutely inaccurate and something we refute in the strongest terms.”
He said videos criticising Chinese President Xi Jinping and denouncing the Tiananmen Square massacre were easily available on the app and were not censored.
In a separate Senate submission, US Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr said TikTok posed “a unique set of national security concerns” and was “far more alarming” than other apps because of ties to China.
He accused TikTok of engaging in a “pattern of misrepresentations regarding both the amount and type of sensitive data it collects as well as the extent to which that data has been accessed from inside China”.
Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus will announce TikTok will be banned on all government-issued devices this week.
Opposition cyber security spokesman James Paterson, who has been calling for the ban for more than six months, said he was “genuinely mystified why it is taking the Albanese government so long to take the first and most basic step to address the serious national security risks posed by TikTok”.
“Banning it from government devices – as all of our closest allies have done – is the lowest hanging fruit,” says Paterson, who is chairing a Senate inquiry into foreign interference through social media.
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