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ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming. Photo by Bloomberg; photo illustration by Mike Sullivan

In TikTok Saga, ByteDance CEO Confronts His Blind Spot: Politics

Photo: ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming. Photo by Bloomberg; photo illustration by Mike Sullivan

Zhang Yiming was shocked. China’s government had just announced new rules that could kill his chances of saving TikTok, the viral video app, from being banned in the U.S. The 37-year-old founder and CEO of TikTok’s Chinese parent ByteDance confided to some of his executives that Beijing’s action, in late August, blindsided him. The company hadn’t been proactive in cultivating a deep relationship with Chinese regulators and consulting them about TikTok’s future, according to a ByteDance executive with knowledge of the situation.

Zhang also faced a similar challenge in the U.S. Some of his colleagues say the CEO could have made more efforts earlier to establish connections to the Trump administration, which took steps to ban TikTok this summer. Last year, politicians who were friendly with Trump began railing against the app and the supposed threat it posed to American national security. And President Donald Trump was already engaged in a lengthy trade war with China.

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