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The letter came in response to criticism from TikTok employees working out of China as the Chinese internet company ByteDance entered into talks to sell the app to Microsoft.
Google and Facebook have also expressed interest in acquiring TikTok – though doing so might prove difficult, as CEOs from both American companies were recently grilled on Capitol Hill over anti-trust concerns. President Trump has threatened to ban the app effective September 15 if an American company does not negotiate a buyout before then, with a significant portion going to the U.S. Treasury.
Yiming, who himself worked for Microsoft in 2008 before quitting because he reportedly felt “unstimulated” by the job, described in a letter to China-based staff how an “anti-Chinese sentiment” has grown abroad over the past two years. He also alluded that the U.S.’ goals might not be to purchase TikTok – but to instead shut it down entirely.
“The focus of the problem is not the CFIUS decision to force the sale of TikTok's U.S. business to an American company on the grounds that they say the Musical.ly acquisition potentially endangered national security,” Yiming said, referring to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.
“Though we disagree with this decision, we understand that this happened under a legal framework. As a company, we have to abide by the laws of the markets where we operate,” he said. “It feels like the goal was not necessarily a forced sale, but given the current macro situation, a ban or even more.”
The Trump administration has also been cracking down on Chinese soft influence in the U.S. – and though the majority of TikTok’s some 100 million users in the U.S. are not of voting age, their political views are being formed as they scroll through the app, according to the Washington Post.
In his letter, Yiming continued: “In countries, such as the United States, in the current environment some politicians have forcefully attacked China, and in turn, Chinese companies, making it difficult to have a thoughtful and nuanced conversation about complex situations. In this challenging environment, we have to appreciate that our colleagues around the world, who come from a wide variety of different backgrounds and cultures, will also face challenges.”
TikTok, like most other social networks, collects data about its users and moderates what's posted. It grabs people’s locations and messages they send one another, for example, and tracks what people watch in order to know what kinds of videos they like and how best to target ads to them.
Similar behavior has raised concerns about American social networks, but Chinese ownership adds an additional wrinkle, because the Chinese government can demand that companies help it gather intelligence. TikTok has vowed that U.S. user data is not stored in China and that it would not hand over user data to the government. But experts have said that if the Chinese government wants information, it will get it. The U.S. government has also cracked down on Chinese telecom companies Huawei and ZTE because of this worry. The companies deny that they facilitate spying.
There are also concerns about TikTok censoring videos critical of China, which TikTok denies, or pushing propaganda. Advocates in the U.S. also say the company is violating children’s privacy laws.
Fox News' Evie Fordham and The Associated Press contributed to this report.