Despite the fact that Twitter remains blocked inside China, the company hired a new managing director last week to oversee its operations there. She’s out to a bit of a bumpy start, with Chinese Twitter users becoming increasingly concerned about her tweets to state media and her past work experience.
On Thursday, when CCTV tweeted news that Twitter had hired Kathy Chen as its first-ever managing director for Greater China, Chen responded by declaring her desire to work with the state news organ to tell “great China story to world!”
— Kathy Chen (@kathychen2016) April 15, 2016
A tweet which was instantly met by widespread derision:
— Mike Forsythe 傅才德 (@PekingMike) April 17, 2016
As well as considerable panic from the small but active Chinese Twitter community, which uses the platform as a safe space to discuss sensitive topics outside the Great Firewall. Chinese political artist Badiucao who now lives in Australia worried that the hiring meant the death of free speech on Twitter:
— 巴丢草 Badiucao (@badiucao) April 16, 2016
Reports on Chen’s interesting résumé have also led to further concern. Along with jobs at Microsoft and Cisco, it turns out that her past work experience includes a 7-year stint working with the People Liberation Army’s missile arm, as well as a 5-year stint working at a joint venture between California-based CA Technologies and China’s Ministry of Public Security.
While her experience as a PLA officer may seem more alarming, it is that second job that raised more questions. The tech company ostensibly made network security and anti-virus software for Chinese government — however, “security” is often a euphemism for “surveillance” in China, argues He Qinglian, a prominent Chinese activist based overseas, via Quartz.
“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,” she wrote on her blog.
The Financial Times further shows how Chen’s work may have been linked to the development of China’s Great Firewall, which shut out her current employer in 2009.
In a 2004 interview with Sohu.com, a Chinese internet portal, Ms Chen described CA Jinchen as behind antivirus software that she called an “email filtering gateway”.
She said the technology was aimed at filtering “harmful information” in addition to viruses and spam. “There could still be information related to Falun Gong, information of political sensitivity and harmful information. We have filters for such content,” she said, referring to the banned Chinese spiritual movement.
Meanwhile, at China Change, Chinese activist Yaxue Cao writes that Chen’s background means that she is certainly a CCP member, and a reliable one at that, considering her extensive work experience overseas. “I think it’s a fair assertion that Kathy Chen’s transition from a programmer of top-secret missile protocol to DEC sales could only have happened with the approval of a Chinese government agency. And then there are the four years with CA-Jinchen, which raises questions about the depth of Chen’s involvement in China’s public security sector,” Cao writes.
Of course, this is all not proof that Twitter is gearing up for a new strategy of stabbing free speech through the heart in order to appease Chinese censors. Though, it certainly means that Twitter is attempting to build closer ties with the Chinese government. Then again, what social media company isn’t? At least Twitter is saving itself the trouble and medical fees of taking a jog through Beijing.
For its part Twitter said that it was perfectly normal for the Chinese government to assign jobs to graduates in the 1980s. They added that Chen’s extensive experience in the private sector and her computer science degree make her a strong candidate for managing director of Greater China.
As for what exactly Chen will try to do, a Twitter spokesman had this to say: “Under Kathy Chen’s leadership, we will provide more of Twitter Inc.’s enterprise offerings—such as advertising, customer service, data analytics and developer platform—to Chinese businesses and startups to help them reach a global audience.”
One thing is for certain, Chen is a total noob at using Twitter. In an interview with SCMP, she confessed that she had never used Twitter before getting her new job. The day after replying to CCTV, she also responded to a congratulatory tweet from Xinhua:
@XHNews Thanks and look forward to closer partnership in the future!
— Kathy Chen (@kathychen2016) April 15, 2016
Later, she even replied to this tweet of a dog with a PLA cap from a Chinese drone maker:
— Claire Chen (@manymanyme) April 16, 2016
— Kathy Chen (@kathychen2016) April 16, 2016
This should be interesting.