TikTok Enlists Army of Lobbyists as Suspicions Over China Ties Grow

“These companies cannot claim that they don’t follow the orders of the party, that’s just not credible,” said Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who tracks Chinese investment worldwide. “Chinese firms don’t have a choice.”

TikTok and the venture funds it counts as its major investors have tried to reassure the Trump administration — including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is in charge of the national security review panel — that it has walled off its China operations from other global activities, people familiar with the conversations said. The firm recently pulled its operations out of Hong Kong after the city imposed new national security laws that would bring Chinese-style censorship to residents. Officials have also raised potential changes to its corporate structure that could include moving its global headquarters during discussions with U.S. officials, these people said.

The company has added well-connected lobbyists, including Mr. Beckerman, the former president of the Internet Association and a longtime Republican congressional aide, and David J. Urban, who ran Mr. Trump’s campaign in Pennsylvania and has been described by the president as “one of my good friends.” He is also a West Point classmate of Mr. Pompeo and Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary.

Mr. Beckerman has hired 15 lobbyists and communications staff for ByteDance, including aides to Paul Ryan, the former Wisconsin lawmaker and speaker of the House, and Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the Democratic whip.

ByteDance has also tapped its prominent investors for help. General Atlantic, whose chief executive, William E. Ford, sits on ByteDance’s board, has been advising TikTok on lobbying strategy, and SoftBank, which invested in ByteDance in 2018, has suggested new Washington hires in the past, said two people familiar with the matter.

For the first three months of 2020, ByteDance spent $300,000 on lobbying, double the amount it spent in the previous quarter and the equivalent of the its two quarters of lobbying in 2019. TikTok’s lobbying force is not as large as those of other tech giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google, but the company has deployed a defensive army with astonishing speed.

Efforts to sway lawmakers have not always gone smoothly. The company scheduled meetings last December between the then-head of TikTok, Alex Zhu, and lawmakers critical of the company. It then canceled the meetings, which irritated lawmakers, who promptly shared news of the canceled meetings on Twitter. (TikTok told reporters at the time that the meetings were postponed until after the holidays.)

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