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Zhang Yiming: the perfectionist behind the TikTok craze

Youngsters have gone mad for TikTok, a video-sharing app launched by a Chinese tech company. But the firm’s links to the regime in Beijing have sparked concerns about its intent.

Since launching in 2016, TikTok, a wildly popular short-video app used mainly by teens and 20-somethings, has “spawned its own industry”, creating a new generation of social-media stars and handing an estimated $33bn fortune to Zhang Yiming – the 37-year-old software engineer who founded its parent company, ByteDance, says The Sunday Times. It has also become “a political tool” capable of humiliating the US president. Ahead of his campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month, Donald Trump bragged about receiving “1m RSVPs” – only to be confronted with rows of empty seats, notes CNN. “Many of those who asked for tickets” appear to have been “trolling the president – in a stunt organised mainly through TikTok”.

Riling the American president

Washington is now threatening a crackdown, indicating it may follow India’s example and ban Chinese social-media apps, including TikTok, on security grounds. You should only download TikTok, secretary of state Mike Pompeo warned Americans this week, “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party”. Zhang and his company are adamant that Beijing has no influence on its operation, notes the Financial Times. But in the current tense environment, keeping “both the US and China happy sounds like one impossible dance routine”. Does he have the mettle to pull it off? 

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Some reckon that TikTok’s “light-hearted nonsense” disguises “the blindingly ambitious designs of one man bent on changing the world”, says The Sunday Times. Born in 1983, the son of civil servants, Zhang has always been a man on the move. Cutting his teeth after university at a series of tech start-ups, Zhang briefly joined Microsoft in China before setting up his own company, ByteDance, from an apartment in Beijing in 2012. Its first product, the news aggregation app Toutiao, was powered by “recommendation algorithms” tracking users’ behaviour across thousands of sites. TikTok (named Douyin in the Chinese market), which followed in 2016, deployed much the same technology. Data analyst CB Insights describes ByteDance’s algorithms as its “secret sauce”. Others reckon Zhang is peddling spyware. According to Reddit’s boss, Steve Huffman, the company’s ability to track users’ behaviour around the web is “truly terrifying”. 

Boundless ambitions

One thing that’s certain is that Zhang is “a tough taskmaster” with a strange way of enforcing creativity and discipline, says The Sunday Times. “He requires executives to make their own TikTok videos” and “if their creations don’t obtain a sufficient number of ‘likes’, makes them do press-ups.” Employees are barred from talking to the press and Zhang himself rarely does interviews. In a rare outing last year, he hinted at his drive: “We must work harder, we must also be more perfectionist”. And indeed, his “ambitions seem boundless”. TikTok has turned ByteDance into “the world’s most valuable start-up” (its value is estimated to have doubled in a year to around $140bn) and the company seems to have plenty more in reserve, including 20 other apps and a smartphone.  

When Zhang recently poached a top Disney executive, Kevin Mayer, to run the show in America, he observed his empire was heading “to the next level”. It was a shrewd PR move, but events are moving quickly – and that boast is now hanging in the balance.

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