In the face of bans, ByteDance tightens grip over US TikTok operations

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TikTok’s Beijing-based owner ByteDance tightened its grip over its US operations over the past two years, according to company insiders, even as momentum to ban the short-video app grew in Washington.

The US government passed legislation this week aimed at forcing TikTok to divest from its parent or face a countrywide ban, but prising the viral video app from its $268 billion parent company would present a formidable challenge.

More than two dozen current and former employees told the Financial Times that TikTok has only become more deeply interwoven with ByteDance as tensions over the app’s ownership escalated.

These people said that ByteDance staff, including senior managers, had been transferred to TikTok; workers based in the US who spoke Mandarin were favored for their ability to coordinate with Chinese counterparts; and restructuring efforts had targeted US-based workers who did not meet exacting performance standards.

“There’s this sort of veneer or facade that these two companies are separate,” said Joël Carter, a former US ads policy manager who left in August 2023. “Really, they’re one and the same.”

Ten current and former employees said the number of Chinese staff had been increasing inside TikTok over the past two years, with ByteDance transferring workers from China to other global offices, including in the US.

This has included senior leaders. Last year, ByteDance moved Qing Lan from Douyin, its Chinese version of the short video app, to head up TikTok’s small and medium-sized business advertising arm in the US, an appointment first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The insiders mostly spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the company, which can claw back bonuses and stock awards if staffers breach non-disparagement rules, according to documents seen by the FT.

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