Two years ago, Shou Zi Chew was a rising star in global tech and finance but little known in the U.S. A little over a decade ago, he was an intern at Facebook. Today, he runs a wildly successful and controversial tech company, and he’s on the hot seat on Capitol Hill.
Chew is the CEO of TikTok, a job he took on less than two years ago. He is testifying Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee at a moment when TikTok and China have become focal points for suspicion and congressional attacks. TikTok has been deemed a national security risk because of its Chinese ownership — and the fear that China can easily access data on the wildly popular app (TikTok boasts more than 150 million users in the U.S. alone). The Biden administration has said TikTok must be divested of Chinese ownership or face a U.S. ban; meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers have proposed various laws that would restrict or ban TikTok outright.
In the run-up to the hearings, Chew and TikTok have been on something of a public relations blitz in the U.S. The CEO has used broadcast and social media to preview his lines of defense: TikTok is safer than most apps; the company has implemented safeguards to avoid security issues; and, most fundamentally, the government in Beijing has no ownership or authority over its data.
In Chew’s prepared testimony, which the company released in advance of Thursday’s hearings, he offers this assurance:
“TikTok has never shared … U.S. user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made.”
It’s not at all clear that the prehearing campaign will have the desired effect for TikTok or its CEO, who is clearly hoping to win hearts and minds in the court of public opinion, if not on Capitol Hill.
Whatever their views about the issue — or about China — all those TikTok users and various lawmakers in Washington may just now be getting around to wondering: Who exactly is Shou Zi Chew?
A meteoric rise
Shou Zi Chew turned 40 on New Year’s Day — though viewers who tune into the hearings or prehearing statementsmay be forgiven for thinking he’s a lot younger than that. Certainly, he has accomplished a lot for a 40-year-old.
Chew was born and raised in Singapore before higher education took him around the world. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from University College London in 2006 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 2010. At some point during his time at Harvard, he noted on a website that he was working at a certain “social media company.”
That company was Facebook.
In the decade that followed, Chew moved between the worlds of technology, social media and finance. He worked at the internet investment firm DST Global and Goldman Sachs before joining the Chinese smartphone behemoth Xiaomi — a competitor of Apple and Samsung, among others. In 2015, Chew became Xiaomi’s chief financial officer and helped spearhead the company’s 2018 public debut on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. With a valuation of nearly $50 billion, Xiaomi was at the time one of the largest-scale Chinese tech listings on the Hong Kong exchange.
“He is a very intelligent interlocutor and savvy investor,” Jing Qian, managing director of the Center for China Analysis at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told Grid. Jing called Chew “a rising star” who “really shone at Xiaomi, leading its successful investment strategy.”
Chew’s relationship with TikTok began in 2013 — though as a financial backer rather than an employee. He was an early investor in TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance.
Chew ultimately joined ByteDance as CFO and was named CEO in May 2021. Yiming Zhang, ByteDance’s founder and chief executive, said at the time that “Mr. Chew brings deep knowledge of the company and industry.” Suddenly, Chew was in charge of one of the largest and most influential tech companies in the world. He landed on the Fortune 40 under 40 list of young and powerful business leaders.
When Chew took the reins, he was the company’s third boss in less than a year — Kevin Mayer had served as CEO for three months, and Vanessa Pappas in a temporary capacity before Chew took over. Even then, TikTok was staring simultaneously at a monumental opportunity and profound challenge: staggering growth propelled by hundreds of millions of users worldwide — along with growing pressure from regulators in the U.S. and other parts of the world.
“Shou represents a new generation of chief executives for multinational corporations made in China,” said the Asia Society’s Jing. “Young and well educated, globally minded with a nuanced view of China’s political realities — but they are all trapped in the geopolitical tension between U.S. and China now, trying to find a way to survive.”
From his early days as CEO, Chew worked to mollify TikTok’s critics. He wrote to U.S. lawmakers, insisting that the company was firmly in his control — the CEO, he said, is “a Singaporean based in Singapore” — and that its Chinese parentage was irrelevant.
Two years later, Chew is making that case on Capitol Hill.
A low profile — until it wasn’t
Considering that he runs one of the most popular apps in the world, Shou Zi Chew is relatively disengaged from social media platforms. He has no Twitter profile, and while his Instagram account has 4,000 followers, Chew has never posted on it.