Why China’s TikTok has been drawing scrutiny from Zuckerberg and U.S. politicians

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TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-sharing app, which has exploded in popularity globally, has recently come under fire for censoring content that Beijing deems unacceptable.

Facebook Inc.’s FB, -2.38% Mark Zuckerberg and U.S. politicians have weighed in on the app maker’s decision to remove content China dislikes.

TikTok is owned by Bytedance, among the world’s most valuable startups. Its buzzy mainland Chinese version is called Douyin, whose translation means “shaky sound.” But the non-Chinese version TikTok, which boasts SoftBank and Sequoia Capital as backers, has become the go-to short-video app for users from the U.S. to Europe and Asia.

The app is similar to the now-defunct Vine, which featured short catchy videos that looped and allowed users to easily share them on social networks.

But the company remains under Chinese jurisdiction, and has been criticized for removing content deemed sensitive to Beijing.

In a free-speech forum Thursday at Georgetown University, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took a jab at TikTok, seen by many as a competitor to the American company’s video-sharing dominance.

Zuckerberg zeroed in on the pro-democracy protests that have rocked Hong Kong for months.

“While our services like WhatsApp are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the U.S. Is that the internet we want?” he said.

TikTok has denied that it is influenced by Chinese government pressure and refutes Zuckerberg’s allegation that it removes or restricts content at the behest of the world’s second-largest economy.

Zuckerberg’s comments come just weeks after U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio asked the American government to investigate TikTok’s practices.

Among his complaints, Rubio alleges that TikTok has removed videos relating to the Hong Kong protests.

“Ample & growing evidence exists that TikTok’s platform for western markets, including the U.S., are censoring content in line with #China’s communist government directives,” he tweeted.

The Florida Republican later added that the “Chinese government’s nefarious efforts to censor information inside free societies around the world cannot be accepted and pose serious long-term challenges to the U.S. and our allies.”

Rubio’s request came after the U.S. passed a broadened mandate for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or Cfius, which examines foreign firms’ acquisitions for national security risks.

Though TikTok has said it doesn’t censor its content, owner Bytedance has submitted to Beijing’s demands more than once. Earlier this year, at government request, it suspended its popular news-aggregation site Jinri Toutiao, and closed jokes app Neihan Duanzi, that had become one of the company’s biggest draws.

Despite the censorship charges, Bytedance remains a formidable up-and-comer in China’s tech scene. The TikTok parent boasts an estimated value of $75 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal, and is working on an initial public offering expected this year or next, the newspaper reported back in June, citing people familiar.

Not only has it eschewed investment from industry giants Tencent Holdings TCEHY, -0.81% and Alibaba Group BABA, -4.33%, it has sued the former for spreading false information about the company, a claim Tencent denies.

Tencent has had reason to be worried. In 2018, the Chinese government ceased approving new online games — the company’s core revenue line. Though Beijing has resumed allowing new titles, the freeze hit Tencent at a time when Bytedance was rapidly gaining in popularity.

China’s new-media landscape is notoriously cutthroat. Bytedance itself has faced several challengers, most recently from startup Kuaishou, which is backed by Tencent, and is rumored to be planning an IPO this year, Bloomberg News reported last month.

But its most difficult challenge may be in balancing its acceptance in freer Western markets while it continues to threaten powerful incumbents at home in China.

Tanner Brown is a contributor to MarketWatch and Barron’s and producer of the Caixin-Sinica Business Brief podcast.

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