In the fall of 2014, a little-known Chinese entrepreneur named Zhang Yiming toured Silicon Valley, visiting the offices of Facebook, Tesla and Airbnb. One thing that struck Mr. Zhang, whose startup in Beijing was beginning to gain traction, was China’s growing influence. He met some Facebook and Twitter employees who loved Xiaomi phones, for example. He noticed how Alibaba’s U.S. IPO, which was happening at the time, was closely watched by American tech founders.
On his return to Beijing, he wrote a blog post in Chinese that pronounced: “The golden age of Chinese tech companies is coming.” Five years later, while the Trump administration’s trade war puts a chill in China-U.S. tech relations, Mr. Zhang’s company ByteDance has emerged as the best example of the golden age he predicted. Its best-known app, TikTok, has been downloaded 1.2 billion times globally, including 105 million in the U.S., according to Sensor Tower. Millions of young Americans use TikTok every day to watch short videos of people lip-syncing, dancing and acting out comedy sketches.