Photo: AFP / Getty Images

TikTok is counting down to the finale of its travails with the Trump administration following reports about its talks with Microsoft for the latter to acquire the Chinese video-sharing app, whose puckish, hedonistic style has percolated through tens of millions of American youngsters. 

Back home at the Beijing headquarters of TikTok’s parent ByteDance, founder Zhang Yiming has reportedly owned up to, in an internal memo sent to his 3,000 employees, his failure to secure any substantive backing from the Chinese government, at a time when Beijing continues to take up the cudgel for other homegrown companies like Huawei and ZTE as the US seeks to shut them out.  

Zhang is quoted by anonymous ByteDance employees who read the memo as saying that TikTok – the overseas version of Douyin, which has also taken Chinese smartphone users by storm since its launch in 2017 – will be sold to an American buyer before the mid-September deadline imposed by Trump. Zhang also expects “decent” proceeds from the acquisition of the online video platform, which commands an active user base of 26.5 million in the US, even though the transaction is an unsolicited one.   

Yet it was also reported by Chinese media on Thursday that Zhang may not act upon Trump’s instructions or comply with the September 15 deadline, when TikTok must change hands or sign off in toto.   

Zhang Yiming, the founder of tech company ByteDance, which owns TikTok, has denied that the group is a ‘national security threat.’ Photo: AFP

But one thing Zhang is sure about is that unlike the outpouring of nationalistic support for Huawei and ZTE after they were singled out by Trump and locked out of the US market and supply chains, TikTok and its parent ByteDance can hardly fall back upon Beijing’s indignation. 

Other than excoriating Trump’s bid to banish yet another Chinese firm, Beijing has not signed up to TikTok’s PR drive in the US as Zhang seeks to shed TikTok’s Chinese identity to salvage its operations there.    

Worse still, Chinese state media and netizens have given Zhang the thumbs down for acquiescing to Washington’s demands and ByteDance’s ongoing campaign to disown its Chinese roots. This is in contrast with the patriotism whipped up by videos and reports – like those about Huawei being unbowed by US sanctions – that are doing all the rounds on ByteDance’s platforms like Douyin and Toutiao, a popular news aggregation app. 

This week, the China News Service noted in an op-ed that ByteDance and all its apps would only be boycotted by Chinese users and Zhang may end up losing more, if the company sought to distance itself from China and turn TikTok into a “US-compliant app.”  

Some patriotic Chinese netizens are also having a field day doxing and victimizing Zhang, impugning his loyalty as his previous posts on Weibo about doing business in the US and the country’s politics diverge from Beijing’s official line and are seen as grovelling to American patrons. 

Zhang’s decision to pull TikTok out of Hong Kong, the first and so far only major social networking platform to opt out after a Beijing-decreed national security law was promulgated in the former British territory in July, has also drawn Beijing’s ire since the divestment is interrupted as a vote of no confidence. 

His redomiciliation plan to move the global headquarters of TikTok to London, not back to Beijing, if the app is banned in the US is also galling to Chinese users. 

ByteDance did not respond to an emailed request for comment. 

In the meantime, some observers say selling TikTok to Microsoft can also be Zhang’s shrewd move to comply with Trump’s demands while conciliating Beijing, as Microsoft and its founder Bill Gates are always in Beijing’s good books. 

The China Business News noted that ByteDance and Microsoft may swap shares in each other’s business, a win-win for both as TikTok can continue to operate in the US while Microsoft can get a big chunk of market share of the bourgeoning social networking sector. Yet both companies have not responded to reports that Washington may ask Microsoft to sell its business in China before acquiring TikTok.