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How TikTok became a diplomatic crisis

How TikTok became a diplomatic crisis

How TikTok became a diplomatic crisis

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But according to interviews with current and former ByteDance employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for professional consequences, the company was caught between the cultures it was trying to bridge. Employees say they had to work “996”, meaning 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week – 72 hours – a standard schedule for Chinese technology companies. During this early period of expansion, calls with overseas offices often took place until midnight, and important meetings took place on Sundays. ByteStyle, the company’s code of values, promotes a culture that could have come from Google or Amazon: diverse, inclusive, radically honest and transparent. But discussing wages was “a line drawn in blood”, said a former employee, and speaking with the press was absolutely forbidden. The structure was flat, especially by Chinese standards – ByteDance removed titles from leadership positions and gave all employees access to other employees’ metrics, including Zhang’s. But it was still clear in which direction the orders were flowing, and managers were rarely questioned.

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“ByteDance works like a machine,” said a former employee. In China, the company is nicknamed the Super App Factory, in recognition of its streamlined system for producing new products. (In a single account, ByteDance had over 140 apps under its umbrella between 2018 and 2020.) The high level of organization and systematization is one of the company’s strengths, as it enables rapid progress and growth. . But it can also be cold and dehumanizing. “Your goals are made public, and they instill the mantra that your peers are your competitors, not your friends,” the employee said. “It’s like a boiler room, a Wall Street boiler room.”

When the company’s international expansion began, all staff members were encouraged to learn English. Zhang was also learning, and he sometimes mentioned books he had heard on “Speak English”, a popular ESL app, such as Eckhart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now”. In 2020, ByteDance hired 40,000 new employees – an average of 150 per working day – many of them outside of China, and most under pandemic conditions. Some Chinese employees have bristled at the consequences of overseas expansion. “A lot of Chinese employees maybe have been working for ByteDance for years, and they didn’t want to start studying English or talking to foreigners or changing company values,” another told me. former worker, employee. “For many people in the Beijing office, they felt like they were losing their business because of Yiming’s conquest of overseas markets.” Some Chinese employees were reportedly upset with the way foreign employees described themselves as only working for TikTok in their LinkedIn profiles, with no mention of ByteDance.

Onboarding was also complicated for foreign employees, especially those who came to ByteDance after serving in senior roles at major US tech companies. Having received promises of autonomy and independence, it was difficult for them to accept that supreme authority belonged to Beijing. “America has been so accustomed for so long to being the standard setter and the arbiter of business practices, to being the home market and the headquarters, that it is not in the American psyche to be the ‘one of the regions,’ said the second former employee. “Americans aren’t used to not having their way.”


What we consider before using anonymous sources.Do the sources know the information? What is their motivation for telling us? Have they proven themselves in the past? Can we corroborate the information? Even with those questions answered, the Times uses anonymous sources as a last resort. The journalist and at least one editor know the identity of the source.

For foreign employees at the Beijing headquarters, the role of cultural translator was an essential part of the job. When ByteDance attempted to internationalize one of its short video products, the first former employee recalled, he was called in for a consult. In China, the product was known as Xigua Shipin (“Watermelon Video”), and the internationalization team announced that it had chosen a foreign name: “Ripe Melons”. He told them they couldn’t call him that. “They said, ‘Why? ‘” the former employee said. “I said, ‘Trust me, you can’t.’ They thought it was a big name. I said, ‘melons are a slang word for women’s breasts.’ They say, ‘No, these are melons that are fresh.’ The product was eventually named BuzzVideo.

Gliding across cultures as an internet-age anthropologist was part of what made working at TikTok interesting and new. When the app was first introduced, each country and market had a slightly different propensity. Thai users liked the videos of people dancing at school; Japanese users preferred funny videos on otaku, young people obsessed with anime, manga and video games; Vietnamese users particularly appreciated the skillful camera work. The US proved harder to crack, until TikTok’s product managers let users drive the creation of a new category – Americans, it turned out, had an unusual attachment to memes .

But often ByteDance’s rapid growth overseas has resulted in a strange mix. “TikTok’s culture is incredibly Chinese in a way that’s contrary to publicity material, in a way that shocks foreigners,” the second former employee said. “But on the other hand, it’s a much more foreign technology company than most Chinese people have worked in before.” In Beijing and overseas offices, turnover was often high as employees burned out due to long working hours, coordination across time zones, and juggling cultures. But success ultimately brought its own kind of stability. “It’s become a mainstream tech company – we get people from Google, Facebook, Snapchat, consulting and blue chip companies,” said a current US employee. “It no longer looks like a pariah Chinese company in any way.”

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