How TikTok Became a Diplomatic Crisis

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

“ByteDance is run like a machine,” a former employee said. In China, the company is nicknamed the Super App Factory, in recognition of its streamlined system for pumping out new products. (By one count, ByteDance had more than 140 apps under its umbrella between 2018 and 2020.) The high level of organization and systematization is one of the company’s strengths, because it allows for rapid progress and growth. But it can also be cold and dehumanizing. “Your goals are publicized, 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 told to learn English. Zhang was learning, too, and he sometimes mentioned books he had heard on “Speak English,” a popular E.S.L. app, like the Eckhart Tolle book “The Power of Now.” In 2020, ByteDance hired 40,000 new employees — an average of 150 every working day — many of them outside China, and most under pandemic conditions. Some Chinese employees bristled at the consequences of the expansion abroad. “A lot of Chinese employees may have been working for ByteDance for years, and they didn’t want to start studying English or talking to foreigners or switching the company values,” another former employee told me. “For a lot of people in the Beijing office, they felt they were losing their company to Yiming’s conquest of foreign markets.” Some Chinese employees were reportedly upset at the way that foreign hires described themselves as only working for TikTok in their LinkedIn profiles, with no mention of ByteDance.

The integration was complicated for the foreign employees too — particularly those who came to ByteDance from senior roles at big American tech companies. Having been promised autonomy and independence, they found it could be difficult to accept that ultimate authority rested in Beijing. “America has been so used for so long to being the standard setter and arbiter of business practice, to be the home market and the HQ, that it’s not in the American psyche to be one of the regions,” the second former employee said. “The Americans aren’t used to not having their way.”

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

Gliding across cultures as a kind of internet-era anthropologist was part of what made working at TikTok interesting and novel. When the app was first introduced, every country and every market had a slightly different proclivity. Thai users liked videos of people dancing at school; Japanese users preferred funny videos about otaku, young people obsessed with anime, manga and video games; Vietnamese users especially enjoyed deft camera work. The United States proved harder to crack, until TikTok’s product managers let the users drive the creation of a new category — Americans, it turned out, had an unusual attachment to memes.

But often, ByteDance’s rapid foreign growth resulted in a strange mash-up. “TikTok’s culture is incredibly Chinese in a way contrary to the advertising materials, in a way that’s jarring to foreigners,” the second former employee said. “But on the flip side, it’s a much more foreign tech company than most Chinese people have worked in before.” In Beijing and foreign offices alike, turnover was often high, as employees burned out on the long hours, the coordination across time zones and the juggling of cultures. But success eventually brought its own kind of stability. “It’s become a mainstream tech firm — we’re getting people from Google, Facebook, Snapchat, consulting, blue-chip firms,” a current American employee said. “It no longer feels in any way like a pariah Chinese company.”


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