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Zhang Yiming: TikTok Creator Under Pressure From Half the World

Zhang Yiming: TikTok Creator Under Pressure From Half the World
Pedro Domínguez Rojas

Pedro Domínguez Rojas

TikTok is today a technological giant like few others. The social network rose like foam in the midst of one of the worst moments of our lives: the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to a type of content (short videos) that accompanied thousands and thousands of young people around the world while they were confined to their homes. Little by little, his influence reaches people of all ages, and his parent company, ByteDance, is valued at approximately 310.000 million euros.

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Currently, TikTok has already exceeded 1.6 billion active users worldwide, and ByteDance employs more than 110,000 workers (most of them in China). A successful company founded by programmer Zhang Yiming, who only a few months ago stepped down as CEO after facing a strong regulatory wave from different countries.

The programmer who succeeded in less than 10 years

At just 39 years old, Zhang Yiming is currently one of the richest men in all of China, but that wasn’t always the case. In his youth, Yiming studied Microelectronics at Nankai University and then switched to Computer Science. After finishing, he ended up going through several companies until he ended up in the arms of the giant Microsoft in 2008. A not very pleasant experience for him, who felt suffocated in the company and would end up leaving soon after.

Just a year later, in 2009, he founded his first company, 99fang.com, after taking over the real estate search business of Kuxun, a travel website that was to be acquired by Expedia. Over the years, Yiming became aware of the growing number of smartphone users and eventually resigned from the company in order to found ByteDance, which was launched in 2012.

The success of ByteDance and Yiming did not come with TikTok, as it may seem, but rather it is due to Toutiao, a news aggregator with an algorithm that personalizes the content and experience for each user. Little by little, it became the company’s main product, but its position ended up being taken by what would be the predecessor of TikTok: Douyin.

The Chinese app, which was born in 2016 under the name of A.me, it would end up being the prelude to the international leap of TikTok in 2017, which was initially proposed by Yiming as a completely independent (and different) app from Douyin. As of today, both apps are completely identical, with the only difference that Douyin, which can only be used in China, is restricted and limited by the Chinese government.

2018 would end up being the year in which Yiming began to savor success thanks to TikTok. The app’s short videos would end up going viral thanks to the spread of movie stars, singers and other personalities. This, added to the fusion with musical.ly, led the app to be the download leader that same year, and its success would end up reaching its peak during 2020, the year of the pandemic.

“China spies on us through TikTok”

The popularity of TikTok did not go unnoticed by the United States Government led by Donald Trump. In his confrontation with the Chinese government, the president signed an executive order in mid-2020 that required the immediate sale of TikTok to an American company or its total ban in the country if the transaction was not carried out within the given period.

Trump’s argument was that TikTok posed a threat to U.S. national security because the Chinese government could use the app to steal the personal data of the approximately 100 million U.S. users registered with it. The executive order also cited the risk that TikTok could censor content deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese government and could spread disinformation.

The now former president gave the go-ahead for the sale of the application to the companies Walmart and Oracle, but the sale process would end up being archived months later, after Trump’s defeat in the US elections in November 2020. Years after the arrival of Joe Biden to the US Government, the use of the app is prohibited on mobile devices of official government positions, for reasons similar to those used at the time by Trump.

The Government of India would also end up exercising regulatory measures on TikTok at a time of great tension with China. Both the short video application and several dozen apps of Chinese origin would end up being completely banned in the country, where they housed some 200 million users, for being considered propaganda and espionage tools.

Both Yiming and other big Chinese businessmen have claimed that TikTok data has always been kept out of China and the influence of the Chinese government. A government that would end up exerting great regulatory pressure on ByteDance and other large Chinese Internet companies.

In this context, Yiming decided to step down as CEO at the end of 2022, being replaced by another ByteDance co-founder: Liang Rubo. The company, even without its founder, is currently facing an investigation by the European Commission to determine the treatment of private data of TikTok users and its possible transfer to China.

Pedro Domínguez Rojas

Pedro Domínguez Rojas

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