Yuan Yang and Hannah Murphy
Zhang Yiming began 2020 with an ill-fated resolution: to travel more.
The success of short video app TikTok, with more than 1bn global users, meant he ran one of the world’s most valuable private tech start-ups. He planned to spend half of every month outside China, recruiting international executives to the app’s parent company, ByteDance.
Now Mr Zhang is stuck in Beijing but nevertheless lives on Silicon Valley time. For the past month, he has woken at 10pm local time to focus on the company’s embattled US operations. TikTok has drawn US president Donald Trump’s escalating ire, culminating on Thursday with an executive order banning TikTok from transacting with US entities in 45 days.
The Trump administration had previously ordered ByteDance to sell TikTok to an American company, so Mr Zhang is in talks with his former employer, Microsoft, over a sale. It is not yet clear what the new ban means for that deal.
Over the past decade, Mr Zhang, 37, has built ByteDance into a formidable opponent to incumbent social media giants around the world, from China’s Tencent to the US’s Facebook. Because the company is everywhere, he also faces attacks on all fronts.
In China, nationalists have called him a “traitor”, and demanded he “stand up” to Mr Trump. Twice last week, he wrote to employees at midnight in his personal timezone to reassure them about the company’s future, and telling them to ignore the social media onslaught.
There are a vast range of outcomes for the Microsoft deal. ByteDance initially talked about selling TikTok’s US operations and those that report to it, such as Canada and Australia, for $15-30bn. But Microsoft is also weighing a purchase of the whole thing. Yet Mr Zhang wants to make ByteDance a global company with half its users overseas by 2021, and TikTok, as its biggest global brand, is central to that vision. There is also uncertainty about the app’s future in India, where TikTok had its biggest pool of users, but Delhi has recently banned it and dozens of other Chinese apps.
Born in 1983, a year before Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the low-key Mr Zhang is seemingly cut from the same cloth as so many US “tech bros”. Educated at Nankai University in Tianjin, where he switched from biology to software engineering, he shares Silicon Valley’s cultural references and super-rationalist, optimising mindset.
Sleep, he once told a colleague, was a “boring thing” needed only to achieve “optimal condition”. Biographies and textbooks, he said in 2018, are the only books worth reading — although he admits to liking libertarian favourite Friedrich Hayek, and former General Electric chief Jack Welch’s management book Winning.
After meeting his wife at university, the multi-billionaire started as a coder. A longtime investor says Mr Zhang designed half of the technology at the heart of ByteDance himself. He worked at travel website Kuxun and Microsoft and started his first company in 2009.
Mr Zhang’s path to founding ByteDance began with his work on search-engine recommendation algorithms. Convinced that small screens were the future, he set out to create products for them. The result in 2012 was Toutiao (Today’s Headlines), his first viral app in China, which recommended an infinite news scroll from inferred user tastes. Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese predecessor, did the same for video.
Mr Zhang launched TikTok itself in 2017. Its dizzying rise was helped by the acquisition that year of Musical.ly, a lip-syncing app launched in Shanghai that took off among US teens. TikTok absorbed Musical.ly’s US userbase.
Even though the 2017 deal had been between two Chinese companies, the US started investigating it two years later on national security grounds. “Yiming knew how much pressure he would encounter on his overseas march,” says one investor. From the beginning of 2019, “whenever we got together, all he asked me about was the future of China-US relations”.
Trump reverses on TikTok, WTO candidates on judicial system, oil earnings
At the heart of government concern about ByteDance, and its appeal to consumers, is its user-generated content. TikTok has faced allegations, which it denies, that it spies on users for Beijing, and that its recommendation algorithm could influence elections. US teenagers have already used the app to sabotage a Trump rally.
While the US has been behind this current crisis, ByteDance has weathered a previous one in China. In 2018, Beijing temporarily banned two of its apps, and permanently shut down its joke app Neihan Duanzi. Many of the app’s 22m users blamed the ban on political content, not the official reason of sexual jokes.
Mr Zhang, a pragmatist, grovelled: “We didn’t realise technology must be led by core socialist values,” he wrote at the time. He has been much more aggressive about American critics, publicly accusing Facebook of engaging in a “smear” campaign to get TikTok kicked out of the US, thus eliminating a competitor.
His private politics are likely complex. Nationalist trolls have circulated what appear to be screenshots of a post he made in 2012, since deleted, that called the Marxist view of historical development “the most classic example” of “unreliable” predictions.
Eight years later, with the US all but set to curtail his efforts to expand worldwide, Mr Zhang has been caught out by the unpredictability of the Trump administration.
Additional reporting by Henny Sender and Miles Kruppa