How a Republican megadonor is fueling China’s TikTok amid national security concerns

In this Feb. 25, 2020 photo shows the icon for TikTok taken in New York. (AP Images)

How a Republican megadonor is fueling China’s TikTok amid national security concerns

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While few issues gain bipartisan support in Washington, the idea of banning TikTok has emerged as a middle ground for Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

But one billionaire Republican financier, Jeff Yass, is deeply invested in TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance and could stand to lose major sums should the social media app be outlawed in the United States. And many on the Right want to send a message to the GOP’s wealthy donor class: Stop pumping cash into entities they say are opposed to America’s national security interests.


“Conservative philanthropists, and their grant recipients, need to consider more carefully the relationship between their investments and the sources of civilizational health or decay,” Ryan P. Williams, president of the conservative Claremont Institute think tank, told the Washington Examiner. “TikTok is a cancer on Western civilization and self-government.”

Over a dozen attorneys general on Monday expressed support for Montana’s efforts to ban TikTok, stating the app “intentionally engages in deceptive business practices which induce individuals to share sensitive personal information that can be easily accessed by the Chinese Communist Party.” Earlier this year, the Biden administration gave ByteDance an ultimatum to either sell off TikTok or soon face a ban, which continues to be mulled by Congress.

ByteDance, which is headquartered in Beijing and incorporated in the Cayman Islands, has been the target of a Justice Department investigation over its apparent spying on U.S. journalists. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) has said the U.S. “should act decisively to ban TikTok directly,” while Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) in early 2023 was joined by over two dozen Democrats and Republicans to introduce the RESTRICT Act, which would propose the Commerce Department have authority to review business transactions for technology products linked to a “foreign adversary” of the U.S, and present “undue and unacceptable risk” to U.S. national security.

“Any platform the Chinese government is using to intentionally manipulate American culture should be banned,” Executive Director Wade Miller of Citizens for Renewing America, a conservative group headed by ex-Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought, told the Washington Examiner.

In other words, there is strong backing among the Right to take action against TikTok, which they view to be a proxy for the CCP. But not everyone is on the same page.

Susquehanna International Group, Yass’s investment firm, purchased a stake in 2012 in ByteDance now worth roughly 15%, the Wall Street Journal reported, noting he personally has a 7% stake in the Chinese company valued at around $21 billion.

And that $21 billion isn’t far off from the billionaire’s net worth — Forbes estimates Yass has roughly $29 billion. Yass has also donated $61 million since 2017 to the influential GOP-aligned Club for Growth, whose president, ex-Rep. David McIntosh (R-IN), penned an op-ed in March pouring cold water on a TikTok ban proposal, stating that handing “the government the power to ban apps and pick and choose between competing apps is a huge restriction on phone freedom.”

“We oppose censorship, giving President Biden undefined broad authority to go after private businesses, and using regulations to shut down competition — all of which would happen under the proposed legislation,” McIntosh told the Washington Examiner. He was referring to the DATA Act, a bill led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), which aims to give Biden the power to ban TikTok.

McIntosh also told the Washington Examiner, “The government should not be in the business of telling people what to put on their phone.”

Yass and his wife, Janine Yass, have contributed over $24 million combined since 2015 to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and committees supporting him, and over $32,000 combined since 2020 to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), and a committee backing the lawmaker, the Wall Street Journal reported. Both of the libertarian-leaning Republicans have taken ardent free speech positions over the years and opposed a TikTok ban.

“TikTok has used America’s First Amendment to try to protect itself from being shut down as a tool of our enemies,” Dan Schneider, vice president of Media Research Center’s Free Speech America, a conservative anti-censorship group, told the Washington Examiner. “It should not have First Amendment privileges.”

Yass was notably the third largest right-leaning donor in the 2022 elections, pouring $49 million to boost conservative-tied causes and candidates, according to OpenSecrets, a campaign finance tracker. He’s also made donations to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R-FL) state PAC in the past and recently gave six figures to a committee aligned with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who, like the Florida governor, is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Scott in May introduced a bill that would require the government to form a list of “adversarial governments” with control over an app’s design and content choice, and, at the moment, would hypothetically support a TikTok ban but doesn’t think it’s feasible, according to a source familiar with his thinking. DeSantis signed a bill banning TikTok in schools in May, and in August said, “I think so,” when asked if he would “ban TikTok” outright.

“I’ve supported libertarian and free market principles my entire adult life,” Yass said recently. “TikTok is about free speech and innovation, the epitome of libertarian and free market ideals. The idea of banning TikTok is an anathema to everything I believe.”

Meanwhile, TikTok and ByteDance have been on a lobbying spree as they fight to retain operations in the U.S., spending tens of millions of dollars since 2019, financial disclosures show. Tiktok’s lobbyists have also repeatedly scored visits to the White House, which has raised concerns among national security experts about the China-tied app gaining access to the highest levels of government.


“TikTok is trying to upend American values and our democracy,” Schneider said.

Yass and TikTok did not reply to requests for comment.

© 2023 Washington Examiner
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