LinkedIn profiles for hundreds of ByteDance employees reveal close connections between the company and China’s propaganda industry.
Three hundred current employees at TikTok and its parent company ByteDance previously worked for Chinese state media publications, according to public employee LinkedIn profiles reviewed by Forbes.
Twenty-three of these profiles appear to have been created by current ByteDance directors, who manage departments overseeing content partnerships, public affairs, corporate social responsibility and “media cooperation.”
Fifteen indicate that current ByteDance employees are also concurrently employed by Chinese state media entities, including Xinhua News Agency, China Radio International and China Central / China Global Television. (These organizations were among those designated by the State Department as “foreign government functionaries” in 2020.)
Fifty of the profiles represent employees that work for or on TikTok, including a content strategy manager who was formerly a Chief Correspondent for Xinhua News.
The LinkedIn profiles reviewed by Forbes reveal significant connections between TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, and the propaganda arm of the Chinese government, which has been investing heavily in using social media to amplify disinformation that serves the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese state media outlets have a large presence on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, but so far, they have been relatively quiet on TikTok.
Unlike the other major platforms, however, TikTok does not currently label accounts controlled by Chinese state media. In March, TikTok announced a plan to label “some” state media entities, but a Forbes review of China’s largest state media entities on the platform, including China News Service, Xinhua News Service, CGTN and the Global Times, found no added context or labels indicating the accounts’ state control. (Disclosure: In a previous life, I held policy positions at Facebook and Spotify.)
ByteDance and TikTok did not contest that the 300 LinkedIn profiles represent current employees or deny their connections to Chinese state media. None of the state media outlets named in this story responded to a request for comment.
Jennifer Banks, a spokesperson for ByteDance, said that ByteDance makes “hiring decisions based purely on an individual’s professional capability to do the job. For our China-market businesses, that includes people who have previously worked in government or state media positions in China. Outside of China, employees also bring experience in government, public policy, and media organizations from dozens of markets.”
In response to the 15 profiles that show ByteDance employees concurrently employed by Chinese state media, she added that ByteDance “does not allow employees to hold second or part-time jobs, or any outside business activity, that would cause a conflict of interest.”
People spend more time on TikTok today than they do on any other app. In recent months, the app has been hailed as a powerful driver of American culture, and has rapidly emerged as a critical player in our electoral and civic discourse. The LinkedIn profiles raise further concerns that China could use TikTok’s broad cultural influence in the US for its own ends, a fear that led a cohort of US politicians, including former president Donald Trump, to call for a ban on the app in 2019.
The profiles also provide critical insight into how ByteDance manages its relationship with Chinese state media entities. In addition to TikTok, ByteDance runs numerous other websites and services, including two of mainland China’s most popular apps: Douyin (a short form video app) and Toutiao (a news aggregator). Chinese state media entities are among the most popular accounts on Douyin, where they have many millions of followers. Many of the LinkedIn profiles detail work on Toutiao and Douyin, which must comply with stringent Chinese censorship laws.
But 50 profiles also specifically mentioned work on TikTok, in areas including policy, strategy, operations, monetization, user experience and localization (the process of adapting a product to fit the needs of foreign markets).
One profile, representing a current TikTok “feature strategy lead,” says that person previously worked for the China Internet Information Center, or china.org.cn, a state-run web portal whose editor-in-chief is also a party secretary and former deputy head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party. Banks said that this individual could not have held a “senior-level” position because they are not a Chinese national. She confirmed they do work on ByteDance’s businesses outside of China.
Per LinkedIn, the TikTok employee worked as an editor for the center’s “China Development Gateway” (chinagate.cn). During their tenure, chinagate.cn published headlines including, “Safeguarding Xi’s core position is the key: communique,” “Under Xi’s watch, China’s sunshine island basks in warmth of opening up,” and “Xi stresses importance of The Communist Manifesto.”
Both TikTok and ByteDance declined to answer questions about if they have collaborated with Chinese state media entities to produce or distribute content.
James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Forbes that he wasn’t surprised that a lot of Chinese state media employees would eventually move over to ByteDance and TikTok. “It’s probably a normal career path; I’m sure ByteDance pays more,” he said, but “ties back to the old homestead might be concerning.”
In recent months, concern about TikTok has risen due to a string of new reports about the app’s links to the Chinese government. In June, BuzzFeed News reported that ByteDance employees in China had repeatedly accessed sensitive information about US TikTok users, setting off a flurry of responses from legislators and regulators in the US and abroad. (TikTok confirmed the reporting in a late-June letter to nine Republican senators.)
In July, BuzzFeed News reported allegations by former employees that ByteDance had pushed pro-China messages to Americans in its now-defunct news app, TopBuzz, which was active between 2015 and 2020. (ByteDance denied the claims.) The TopBuzz report marked the first claims that TikTok’s parent company had attempted to use its content distribution engine to influence Americans’ views about China. Just days later, Bloomberg reported that the Chinese government asked TikTok for permission to set up a “stealth propaganda” account in 2020, which TikTok confirmed.
According to Bloomberg, members of TikTok’s policy department declined to grant the Chinese government’s request for such an account. But a LinkedIn profile representing ByteDance’s deputy general manager of media cooperation suggests there may be more collaboration between Chinese state media and ByteDance than that story suggests.
The profile states that the deputy general manager is “responsible for the formulation of the cooperation strategy between the company and the central media” and “cooperate[s] with partners in content planning, data mining, product interaction, business, etc.” (Some quotes from LinkedIn profiles in this article were originally written in Chinese and translated by Google.)
An interview request sent to this profile went unanswered. ByteDance declined to specify what “cooperation strategy” the deputy general manager was referring to.
For this employee and the other ByteDance employees mentioned below, ByteDance’s Banks confirmed that they “exclusively” work on the company’s China market businesses.
The LinkedIn profiles raise further concerns that China could use TikTok’s broad cultural influence in the US for its own ends.
Another employee, now ByteDance’s vice general manager of media partnerships, previously ran social media for china.org.cn. Among the portal’s social media posts during his tenure were Facebook posts titled, “Why China needs Xi Jinping as its core leader” and “Human Rights Hype Isn’t Good For The US Or China,” and a tweet asking, “Is Western ideology doomed to fail?” The employee did not respond to an interview request.
Other profiles also suggest expertise in tailoring messages based on users’ online behavior: A profile for a current ByteDance director of government affairs cooperation described past work for People’s Daily—the newspaper of record of the Chinese Communist Party—where the now-director “analyz[ed] the reading habits of Internet audiences and the identity characteristics of mainstream party media audiences” and “without violating the party’s propaganda policy, actively carr[ied] out special news planning” with local government offices. An interview request to this profile received no response.
Fifteen profiles also listed both ByteDance and a state media organization as a person’s current employer. The profile for one such employee, who has served as an editorial director at ByteDance since March 2019, says that she is also a current member of the editorial boards of the China News Service, which is run by the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party, and China Weekly, which is supervised by the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League. The editorial director did not respond to an interview request.
The profile for another such employee, a director of public relations, says that she is also a current “senior reporter and operations manager” at Beijing TV. The profile for a third employee, an “Internation [sic] Operation Manager” at ByteDance, says that person is also the current chief editor for international news at Beijing Time (btime.com), a news website affiliated with Beijing TV. Neither of these employees responded to interview requests.
According to its About Us page, Beijing Time “takes the dissemination of positive energy, mainstream voices, and Chinese excellent culture as its own responsibility,” and “builds a media communication platform for Beijing’s patriotism education base for the Beijing Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Department.”
Chinese state media entities have long used social media to target and influence Western audiences. Earlier this year, China Central Television (CCTV) and its global arm, China Global Television Network (CGTN), promoted Russian disinformation on Facebook about Ukraine. The outlets previously ran ads on the platform denying extensively documented human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government against Muslim minorities. CCTV/CGTN did not reply to a request for comment.
Forbes identified 49 LinkedIn profiles for TikTok and ByteDance employees who previously worked for CCTV and CGTN. Among them were CCTV’s former editor-in-chief, who now serves as ByteDance’s director of media content partnerships, and a ByteDance overseas market operator whose profile says he is still an editor for CCTV.
Just last month, Xinhua News Agency denied that China has forced ethnic minorities into manual labor in Xinjiang, calling the reports “fabricated false information.” The agency has repeatedly posted denials of the government’s abuse of Uyghur communities, while also promoting the local folk artists of “Wondrous Xinjiang.” In 2019, the outlet ran ads on Facebook and Twitter to smear protestors in Hong Kong; earlier this year, it ran more, blaming Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on “NATO’s ambition to expand eastward.” Xinhua News did not reply to a request for comment.
The Communist Party loves TikTok and I’m sure they’re trying to figure out how to use it, which is bad news for ByteDance.
Forbes found 39 profiles for current TikTok and ByteDance employees that previously worked at Xinhua. According to those profiles, one former Xinhua reporter, who is now the head of cooperation at ByteDance, won several government journalism awards. Another, who works in internal communications, is a former reporter for both Xinhua and Beijing Daily. Neither employee responded to an interview request.
According to LinkedIn, another 24 TikTok and ByteDance employees formerly worked for People’s Daily, an outlet that press freedom advocacy group Freedom House has deemed “the official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece.” Others have worked for China Daily and China Radio International (both registered foreign agents, per the State Department) and China Youth Daily, the newspaper of the Communist Youth League of China.
ByteDance’s extensive connections to Chinese state media publications—along with its lack of policies for designating and monitoring their content on TikTok—make it an outlier among social media giants. While LinkedIn shows that Google and Meta also employ people who previously worked for Chinese state media, the numbers are different by an order of magnitude.
Forbes identified 23 profiles that appear to represent current employees at Google or YouTube, and 14 profiles of current employees at Meta, Facebook, and Instagram, who previously worked for Chinese state media. One of these people, Google’s senior most communications official for greater China, spent more than 15 years at China Global Television Network, where he was a director, editor, reporter and anchor. (He did not respond to an interview request.) Google spokesperson Peter Schottenfels declined to comment. Meta spokesperson Andrea Beasley acknowledged a request for comment, but did not offer comment by press time.
Lewis, the scholar at CSIS, cautioned against reading too far into any individual employee’s work history. But, he said, “The Chinese government is probably trying to poke around to figure out—how can they use the information they’re getting from watching TikTok to better tailor their propaganda for a Western audience?”
None of this is good for ByteDance, especially as scrutiny about its ties with the government heightens. “The Communist Party loves TikTok and I’m sure they’re trying to figure out how to use it, which is bad news for ByteDance,” Lewis said. “Because being the Communist Party’s favorite child means unwanted attention.”