British MPs sanctioned by China denounce parliament’s new TikTok account

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LONDON — Senior Conservative politicians who have been sanctioned by China are demanding that the U.K. parliament takes down its newly created TikTok account.

Senior MPs and members of the House of Lords laid into parliamentary authorities for setting up an account on the social media platform, which is owned by Chinese technology company ByteDance.

Tom Tugendhat, the former Tory leadership candidate and chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, and Nus Ghani, a vice chair of the party’s powerful 1922 committee of backbenchers, are among those calling for the account to be taken down over fears that TikTok user data is transferred to China.

In a joint letter sent on Wednesday to the speakers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords — and seen by POLITICO’s London Playbook — the politicians said they were “surprised and disappointed” with the decision to set up the account.

They said that under the National Intelligence law passed in 2017, companies are required to yield data to government authorities upon request. They expressed doubt over a TikTok executive’s reassurances to parliament in 2021 that its user data is not shared with ByteDance in China.

“The prospect of Xi Jinping’s government having access to personal data on our children’s phones ought to be a cause for major concern,” the letter said. It urged parliamentary authorities to take down the account “until credible assurances can be given that no data whatsoever can be transferred to China.”

The Chinese government sanctioned Tugendhat, Ghani and Duncan-Smith among others last year, claiming they had “maliciously spread lies and disinformation” about human rights abuses.

The U.K. parliament launched its new account this week, urging people to follow it “for news and behind-the-scenes content from the Elizabeth Tower.” TikTok allows users to post short videos, often overlaid with music.

Ghani, a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said: “We can’t have parliament becoming a client of an app which sends data to a government which has sanctioned it. And we certainly can’t allow parliament to become a client of an app whose executives may have misled it.”

Committee grilling

MPs on the business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) committee are currently fixing a date for TikTok executives to appear before them and answer fresh questions on where its user data is handled.

Theo Bertram, vice president for government relations and policy for TikTok in Europe, wrote to the committee this month saying the platform had “never been asked to provide TikTok user data to the Chinese government, nor would we if asked.”

Responding to a question on whether ByteDance employees in China can access user data, Bertram said there was “some limited and controlled employee data access,” for example for engineers based in China.

Elizabeth Kanter, TikTok’s director of government relations, told the same committee last year that “none of our user data goes to China” and that “TikTok does not share user data with ByteDance in China.”

Bertram told Tory MP Damian Green during a hearing of the digital, culture, media and sport committee in September 2020 that “no employee in China can access TikTok data in the way that you are suggesting on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party to carry out mass surveillance.”

TikTok maintains that within their wider context those statements were referring to the possibility of data access by the Chinese government, which it says it has never provided, and not employees based in China.

However, BuzzFeed obtained a leaked recording in June revealing that U.S. user data had been accessed repeatedly from China. MPs including Ghani are now accusing TikTok executives of having potentially misled parliament over the matter.

Tory MP Tim Loughton, crossbench House of Lords member David Alton and Labour peer and barrister Helena Kennedy were also co-signatories of the letter. All were sanctioned by Beijing last year and cannot enter mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau as a result.

A spokesperson for the U.K. parliament said: “We can confirm we have received the letters and will respond in due course. Prior to setting up the new U.K. parliament TikTok account, we undertook all necessary steps to ensure none of our data is at risk. We cannot go into any further detail about these measures for security reasons.”

A spokesperson for TikTok said: “The TikTok platform does not operate in China and we have never provided user data to the Chinese government. U.K. politicians and government departments use TikTok to reach millions of people in an engaging and creative way — we welcome the opportunity to talk directly to the signatories to clarify the factual inaccuracies contained in their letter to the Speakers.”

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