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The House will vote on whether to force the sale of TikTok as part of a package of foreign aid measures. Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Senators Say China’s TikTok Lobbying Efforts Could Backfire

The bill forcing a TikTok sale is getting tacked on to what many see as a must-pass foreign aid package.

Senators hope the news of Chinese officials lobbying on behalf of TikTok influences iffy colleagues to pick a side — preferably theirs — after a bill to force the sale of the social media giant passed the House this weekend.

“I’m not surprised,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin told NOTUS of the recent Politico report that the Chinese embassy held meetings with multiple congressional staffers and discussed TikTok. “It’ll open people’s eyes to reality.”

“I had assumed that,” Sen. Joe Manchin said. “Hell, they want all our information. It’s crazy.”

After the House passed a bill in March that would force parent company ByteDance to divest of TikTok, the Chinese embassy reportedly sought to quell national security concerns in meetings with Congress. They claimed the social media app as a Chinese company, though it is headquartered in Singapore; ByteDance is based in Beijing. TikTok said it did not know about the meetings.

The bill received broad bipartisan support after intelligence briefings detailing the potential for China’s government to subpoena the company for app users’ data, including U.S. citizens.

It stalled in the Senate due to “entrenched opposition because of money,” Sen. Josh Hawley said Monday.

The opposition lost this weekend. The fourth leg of House Speaker Mike Johnson’s foreign aid package encompassed multiple foreign policy priorities, including the divestment of TikTok — forcing ByteDance to sell its stake within a year — which passed the House 360-58. When it reaches the Senate, members dubious of the forced sale will have to vote in favor of it to deliver long-awaited aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan.

“I didn’t have ‘Banning TikTok as the price for Ukraine aid’ on my Bingo card,” Sen. Chris Murphy said Wednesday. Murphy declined to discuss the embassy’s lobbying without reading the report but told NOTUS he had not been contacted by the embassy.

U.S. officials have wrestled for years with concerns about the Chinese government utilizing TikTok’s user data. Critics say Chinese law could compel ByteDance to give user data to the government, potentially allowing access to the personal information, interests and habits of millions of Americans — and creating a massive avenue for misinformation that benefits foreign interests.

Former President Donald Trump attempted to force ByteDance to sell TikTok with an executive order, but a court rejected it. In March, President Joe Biden said he would sign a bill requiring TikTok’s divestment if it reached his desk. The new bill gives ByteDance one year to negotiate a sale, a change supported by Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell. Failure to divest would lead to the app being banned in the U.S.

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The meetings weren’t the first lobbying efforts against the bill, Sen. Chuck Grassley pointed out. When the House first raised the potential of forcing a sale, TikTok sent users an alert falsely claiming that Congress was trying to ban the app. Thousands of people called their representatives, panicking that the app would be shut down in the States.

“We don’t need that kind of interference,” said Grassley, whether from ByteDance or Chinese diplomats, saying he has asked young voters, “‘Would you want Beijing to do that on Nov. 4, the day before the election?’”

Others saw a distinct difference between TikTok’s efforts and a foreign government lobbying on its behalf.

“Outrageous,” Sen. John Cornyn said. “They want to explain that TikTok is somehow independent of the Chinese Communist Party,” but the secret meetings are “solid evidence that’s not the case.”

News of the embassy’s activity “should shore up support for the divestment,” Cornyn added.

“They do not want to lose their insight into our homes, into our children, into our thought processes,” said Sen. Katie Britt, saying the meetings provided “further affirmation of how important this is to them because they want to continue to keep control.”

Despite the hope that the embassy’s meddling could backfire, it shouldn’t be overlooked, Sen. Tommy Tuberville said, noting that money talks.

“You spread enough money around, you can do about anything up here,” he added.

This story has been updated to include House passage of the TikTok divestment provisions.

Ben T.N. Mause is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.