A last-ditch attempt to prevent the UK government from endorsing TikTok’s plans to locate its headquarters in London is being mounted by China hawks who accuse the app’s parent company of cooperating with authorities in Xinjiang province.
Downing Street is keen to encourage TikTok to move from Beijing to London, but faces a rearguard action led by the trade secretary, Liz Truss, who is anxious about some of the demands being made by the business.
TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, wants a public statement of support from a senior minister that it will be welcome in the long term so that it does not face what happened to Huawei, which last month was banned from supplying 5G technology to the UK from 2027.
Downing Street’s initial enthusiasm has provoked concern from China hawks, who have responded by hunting for information to use to force the prime minister to retreat, including seeking details about ByteDance’s relationship with Beijing.
A key figure supporting the TikTok move is the junior business and trade minister Gerry Grimstone, a Sinophile and former chairman of the insurer Standard Life. His influence in No 10 is understood to have irritated Truss, who believes she should have a greater role in inward investment.
Any last-minute change of heart would amount to a significant deterioration in an already tense Chinese-British relationship. A source familiar with the situation said: “This is different to Huawei. Huawei was banned because of worries about spying and US sanctions. This would be a decision based on Xinjiang.”
China is accused of presiding over a fierce repression of its Muslim minority in its western province of Xinjiang. There is limited available evidence that ByteDance has become embroiled.
Critics of the company are relying on research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released late last year. The thinktank said other ByteDance-owned apps were used to promote Chinese government content, particularly in Xinjiang.
Citing local media coverage, ASPI concluded that ByteDance “collaborates with public security bureaus across China, including in Xinjiang, where it plays an active role in disseminating the party state’s propaganda on Xinjiang”.
Founded in 2012, ByteDance owns TikTok and Douyin, China’s leading video app. TikTok is the international version of Douyin. While the two share some technology, their video content is separate.
ByteDance said Douyin allowed law enforcement groups to set up accounts, as other social media firms do around the world. “Douyin does not endorse the content generated by its users, but rather, similar to Twitter or Facebook, provides a platform to all of its users,” it said.
Leaked documents passed to the Guardian last September showed that TikTok previously instructed its moderators to censor videos that mentioned Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence or the banned religious group Falun Gong.
The company said the guidelines were “retired” in May 2019, and videos referring to all three topics can be found today. But this week it emerged that a news app owned by ByteDance in Indonesia had censored similar terms until a few weeks ago.
ByteDance is engaged in a set of complex negotiations, including the sale of its US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand operations to Microsoft to avoid being banned in US by Donald Trump.
That has left London the favoured location for its worldwide headquarters, although the discussions nearly collapsed after Downing Street reversed a previous decision to allow Huawei to supply 5G equipment in July.
The company’s growth has been meteoric, with TikTok surpassing 2bn downloads worldwide, leading to talk of a valuation of $100bn, most of which revenues come from China. Unlike most Chinese companies, its investors include US venture capitalists eager to see ByteDance diversify.
TikTok has grown quickly in Britain and already employs 800 people in the UK and Ireland, out of a total of 1,000 in Europe. It is estimated to have 3.7m active users in the UK, each spending on average 41 minutes a day with the app.
A ByteDance spokesperson said: “ByteDance is committed to being a global company. In light of the current situation, ByteDance has been evaluating the possibility of establishing TikTok’s headquarters outside of the US, to better serve our global users.”