Lawmakers blasted the UK government for sharing 'confidential' information in private messages to TikTok execs

  • British politicians reacted Insider revealing the UK government told the 'confidential' identity of its next China ambassador.
  • One says Downing Street faces 'serious questions' on the tranche of messages, obtained under Freedom of Information laws.
  • They also showed the government trying to reassure TikTok over new national security powers.
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The UK government has "serious questions" to answer, lawmakers have said after Insider revealed it told TikTok the confidential identity of its next China ambassador before the appointment was confirmed.

Insider published internal conversations between TikTok and senior government officials January to June 2020, when the video app was reportedly negotiating to base its global headquarters in London.

The conversations took place even as TikTok was the subject of national security concerns in the US due to its ties to China.

Officials from the government's trade department tried to reassure TikTok over wider plans to boost government powers to police foreign investments into the UK, the messages show.

The Department for International Trade (DfiT) also revealed, then asked TikTok to be "discreet" about, the news Caroline Wilson was likely the UK's next ambassador to China, before the appointment was confirmed and four months before it was announced.  

Read the UK government correspondence with TikTok exclusively obtained by Insider

Politicians blasted the government for the revelations.

Labour MP Chris Elmore, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on social media, said the messages "leave trail right to the Prime Minister's own office." Recipients on the messages included senior Downing Street officials such as Sir Edward Lister, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson's chief strategic advisor.

Elmore added: "There are now serious questions that need to be answered by the UK government … We must all be concerned that strictly confidential information of national importance is being willingly shared with social media companies.

"We need to know what direction the Prime Minister gave to his staff to provide this information with TikTok, when did he first learn about this email exchange and what other sensitive information may have been shared from his office."

"It is utterly contemptible to find ourselves yet again in the position where social media companies are operating in cosy back rooms to gain influence at the very heart of government."

Andrew Lewer, a member of the China Research Group (CRG) of Conservative MPs launched by senior Tories last year to shape policy on China, was surprised by how the government acted.

He added attitudes to China have changed since the messages were sent last June. Conservative lawmakersare increasingly concerned about the UK's relationship with China, particularly in light of atrocities against its Uighur minority population.

Insider originally requested the documents under Freedom of Information laws in July. 

"Reports of the contents of these documents serve to show how quickly sentiment within both government and the Parliamentary Party is hardening towards China," Lever said, speaking personally rather than for the CRG.

"Some elements of these conversations, as reported, would be, at the very least, difficult to envisage happening now, even though it is less than a year later. They also illustrate the growing tension between China as a market for UK plc and its status as a human-rights abuser on a vast scale."

Luke de Pulford, coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a group of lawmakers whose members include former UK Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith and former US presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, was also worried.

He decried "the so-called 'Golden Era'" of British-Chinese relations under past governments when "the UK sold to China, shelving our values in the hope of economic gain."

"Many key civil servants have yet to smell the coffee," he said. "There cannot be business as usual or behind closed doors deals with states credibly accused of genocide."

Fears of TikTok's ties to China stem from the fact its parent company ByteDance, though registered in the Cayman Islands, is headquartered in Beijing. Lawmakers worry that the firm could be compelled to hand over information about users to the Chinese regime.

TikTok has repeatedly denied it would share user data with the Chinese Government if asked.

TikTok declined to comment and DfIT did not respond.

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