25 October 2016
Tweets by Kathy Chen (inset), who used to work for the PLA, riled many mainland Chinese users of Twitter. One netizen posted a cartoon saying 'Twitter is dead'. Photos: Twitter, CNSA
Tweets by Kathy Chen (inset), who used to work for the PLA, riled many mainland Chinese users of Twitter. One netizen posted a cartoon saying 'Twitter is dead'. Photos: Twitter, CNSA

Facepalm – Twitter’s new China head used to work for the PLA

Nearly seven years after it was blocked in China, Twitter named Kathy Chen (陳葵) as its new chief for Greater China, upsetting Chinese users with her background working with the Chinese government and her initial tweets reaching out to Chinese official media.

“Thank you very much for your support,” said Chen, Twitter’s new managing director for Greater China and a veteran of the Chinese operations of Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., in a short video posted on Twitter late last week by the company’s official Greater China account.

But that support will not be arriving any time soon from some of Twitter’s Chinese-speaking users, The New York Times said.

The reason is her résumé: before she worked for foreign companies in China, Chen served a seven-year stint in the Chinese military. After that, she was involved in a joint venture that was partly owned by the country’s powerful internal security ministry.

While Chen’s appointment doesn’t necessarily mean that Twitter will be introducing Beijing-style censorship to the world, the fact that she worked for the People’s Liberation Army and China’s Ministry of Public Security doesn’t inspire confidence.

Twitter has many users on the mainland who find ways to circumvent the ban.

They are among the most ardent believers in internet freedom and have a special love for the social network, Yaxue Cao, founder of China Change, said in a commentary on Twitter’s newest hire.

“A large number are IT experts who migrated from Fanfou [a Chinese social media site] in 2009 and became almost religious users of Twitter; another large group are political dissidents,” Cao said.

“The former group can’t stand being stifled by the Great Firewall’s internet strictures, while the latter uses Twitter as a space where they can communicate to one another freely even as China continues to ratchet up internet controls.

“Twitter has thus become an enclave for a group of mainland Chinese users and a sanctuary of freedom of speech online.”

PLA work experience notwithstanding, it’s Chen’s work as chief executive of CA-Jinchen, a software joint venture between California-based CA Technologies and the Ministry of Public Security, that has China’s Twitter users’ panties in a twist.

The company ostensibly made network security and anti-virus software for Chinese government agencies, an online article on Quartz said.

But as He Qinglian, a prominent critic of media controls in China, said, the word “security” is often a euphemism for “surveillance” in China — where the internet is closely monitored for messages that criticize the Communist Party, and users can be severely punished with long jail sentences for what they write.

“Twitter has vast amounts of users’ data. Given that US tech firms have in the past kowtowed to China, and given the military background of Kathy Chen, it’s only reasonable for the Chinese users of Twitter to be worried about the future,” He wrote on her blog.

She also urged the US Congress to conduct a hearing on Chen’s appointment, Business Insider reported.

Chen, who will be based in Hong Kong, was most recently an executive with Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific research and development group before being hired by Twitter.

She has not publicly responded to Twitter users’ concerns, but that’s probably just as well.

Her initial tweets show little knowledge of the Twitter ecosystem.

Chen’s sixth tweet, Cao wrote in her blog, encouraged China Central Television and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey to “work together to tell the great China story to the world!”

Her tenth thanked the official Xinhua news agency with: “Look forward to closer partnership in the future!”

Cao wrote that one of her friends was appalled, saying: “Twitter working with CCTV to tell the story of China? I can’t believe she said this. I’ve taken a screen grab.”

Another user pointed out: “Greater China = PRC, HK, Taiwan – people in TW/HK are NOT interested in CCP’s ‘great story’.”

Indeed, the China story means different things to different audiences.

At Twitter, the official word is that Chen will focus on building its advertising business in China and working with developers and others who interact with the platform, the New York Times reported.

Adding to the complicated relationship between Twitter and China, working with advertisers also includes dealing with state media outlets such as Xinhua, CCTV and the People’s Daily — the Communist Party’s newspaper – which have increased their presence on Twitter in recent years.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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