SINGAPORE—TikTok has accelerated efforts to move workers away from China in an attempt to distance itself from its Chinese parent, but the short-video app still counts on local talent to handle some key functions and continues to recruit there.
TikTok and its parent ByteDance Ltd. have moved key executives to Singapore and the U.S., ramped up hiring of staff and engineers outside of China, and reorganized teams internally from the rest of the Chinese company’s suite of apps, part of efforts to separate the companies under scrutiny from Washington.
Still, some engineers working on TikTok’s algorithms remain based in China, people familiar with the matter said. Beijing-based ByteDance continues to recruit people in the country to work on TikTok.
The parent is advertising jobs in China to work on various TikTok features, such as private messaging, live-streaming and its marketplace functions. It is also hiring for roles based there focusing on international expansion, including searching for senior algorithm engineers to develop its user search interface.
Hiring within China allows ByteDance to leverage the experience social-media engineers have accumulated working with other domestic apps, in addition to letting the company tap the deep talent pool domestically, people familiar with the company said.
Most of TikTok’s hiring is happening in the U.S., U.K., Singapore and other markets in Southeast Asia, a company spokesperson said. TikTok employs more than 20,000 people, with about a quarter of that number in the U.S.
TikTok’s Chinese ties have stirred concerns in Washington and across the U.S. over national-security risks of user data as well as potential censorship or content manipulation on the platform. The U.S. Senate passed a bill on Wednesday citing national-security concerns and banning TikTok from government devices, while a potential deal between the Biden administration and TikTok over its U.S. operations has run into delays. Several states, including Texas, have made moves to ban the use of TikTok on government-issued devices, citing concerns that the app could be used to help China surveil Americans and U.S. intelligence officials.
TikTok has repeatedly denied any connection with the Chinese government. It also has said that it safeguards its user data and wouldn’t share it with Beijing.
Founded in May 2017, TikTok is by far the most successful Chinese internet company worldwide. It was the most downloaded nongaming app through the first half of 2022, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower. TikTok has around one billion daily users globally, according to company employees.
Since coming under fire from the Trump administration for its Chinese connections, TikTok executives three years ago embarked on a strategy of establishing regional headquarters outside of China, including in Culver City, Calif., and localized policies and operations in individual overseas markets. Most recently, the app has broadcast plans to try to safeguard U.S. users’ private data by storing the data with
and deleting such data from its own centers.
TikTok has accelerated efforts to relocate some China-based engineers and product managers to other locations, such as Singapore and the U.S., partly to facilitate their access to overseas users’ data for product-development purposes, people familiar with the matter said. TikTok has said it is working to restrict access to user data by China-based staff, an effort to address security concerns raised by the U.S. and other governments.
ByteDance Chief Executive Liang Rubo has relocated from Beijing to Singapore, joining TikTok head Shou Zi Chew and product chief Zhu Wenjia, who are based in the city-state. Several senior managers who oversee product development and algorithms and report to Mr. Zhu are based in Singapore and the U.S.
In Singapore, hundreds of its employees handling its regional expansion work from a commercial building in the central business district where the Chinese internet company leased space about more than two years ago.
This year, TikTok has beefed up its attempts to hire more engineers and product managers in locations outside China, according to people familiar with the hiring.
The pace of hiring has been slower than expected because Singapore has a smaller talent pool than China and because of complications in acquiring work visas.
ByteDance considers TikTok one of its main growth engines and has allocated more resources to expand and monetize the services, especially as ByteDance’s China businesses have slowed. It is also developing e-commerce on the app, duplicating some functions and models from TikTok’s Chinese sister app Douyin.
Under this strategy, TikTok is using China-based staff who have experience working in ByteDance’s other monetization projects and e-commerce service, while some of them are tasked to attract Chinese merchants to sell on TikTok, people familiar with the matter said.
Historically, most of TikTok’s software developers and programmers had been based in China, as they had worked at Douyin, which uses similar algorithms to recommend content to users, and other algorithm-driven apps of ByteDance, people familiar with the matter said. This setup means many changes to the algorithm TikTok uses were handled in China, they said.
In late 2021, ByteDance began reorganizing its units to cluster employees by product area, rather than by their duties, according to an internal memo viewed by The Wall Street Journal. Before the change, many TikTok employees were scattered in different ByteDance teams, the people said. Under the new arrangement, TikTok staff would operate in their own unit.
Since May, ByteDance has changed the names of several subsidiaries, including its main China entity, in which a state-backed fund owns 1%. It replaced the “ByteDance” label on those units with “Douyin,” an effort to reduce public confusion between ByteDance, the offshore parent, and its China entities and address concerns that TikTok could be under Beijing’s control.
ByteDance in October also rebranded the Douyin entities with a new logo. The app Douyin still uses the same logo as TikTok’s.
ByteDance has sought to expand its existing board of directors to nine from five to bolster its non-Chinese representation, people familiar with the matter said.
Write to Raffaele Huang at email@example.com
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