In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper Tuesday, a TikTok executive refused multiple times to acknowledge China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, which the US State Department has labeled a genocide and a United Nations report said may constitute “crimes against humanity.”
In response to Tapper’s question, “Do you acknowledge that the Chinese government has Uyghurs and others in concentration camps?” Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, said, “That’s not what I focus on.”
TikTok is a Chinese-owned platform that has come under intense scrutiny by US lawmakers and security experts as the social media app has grown exponentially more popular over the past several years. Critics argue China’s national security laws could force TikTok — or its parent, ByteDance — to hand over the personal data of customers in the United States.
Security experts have said that the data could allow China to identify intelligence opportunities or to seek to influence Americans through disinformation campaigns.
The company has also been accused of censoring content that is politically sensitive to the Chinese government, including banning some accounts that posted about China’s mass detention camps in its western region of Xinjiang. The US State Department estimates that up to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in these camps.
In August, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a report that China has committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghurs, which may amount to “crimes against humanity.”
Given a second opportunity to acknowledge China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Beckerman again deferred.
“I’m just not an expert on what’s happening in China,” Beckerman said. “So it’s not an area that I’m focusing on.”
Beckerman denied censoring posts about the internment camps in Xinjiang, saying moderation decisions are made in the United States — not China — and people can search in the TikTok app to find “plenty of content about that.”
“We do not censor content on behalf of any government,” Beckerman said. “That does not violate our content guidelines.”
Tapper pressed Beckerman a third time, asking if the TikTok executive was afraid he would get fired if he discussed China’s treatment of Uyghurs. He again refused to acknowledge it, saying only that China is among many bad actors around the world.
“Look, I think there are many human rights violations that are happening in China and around the world,” Beckerman said. “I think these are very important. I’m not here to be the expert on human rights violations around the world.”
TikTok called the suggestion that Beckerman refused to acknowledge China’s treatment of Uyghurs, “outrageous.”
“Michael absolutely did acknowledge that there are human rights violations happening in China,” said Brooke Oberwetter, spokeswoman for TikTok, in a statement. “But he stipulated that that determination is outside his area of expertise as the head of public policy for TikTok. As head of public policy for TikTok, his role is to explain TikTok’s approach to the content that Jake asked about, which he did several times.”
In addition to security and privacy concerns, TikTok has also been criticized for surfacing potentially harmful content related to suicide and eating disorders to teenagers.
In a report published last week, the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate found that it can take less than three minutes after signing up for a TikTok account to see content related to suicide and about five more minutes to find a community promoting eating disorder content.
Beckerman dismissed concerns raised by Tapper that some American parents may see that study and believe “the Chinese government may be trying to destroy our kids from within.” Beckerman nodded to the app’s parental controls, but he called Tapper’s argument hypocritical.
“The same people that are complaining about employees in China and acts from China, and all these things … they are also suggesting that here in the US, we should apply Chinese-style media rules,” Beckerman said. “We have freedom of speech, among other things here in the United States.”