The Controversy over Twitter’s New Appointment

In early April, Twitter appointed Kathy Chen to be its new head of China, despite the website is still blocked in the country. However, this seemingly normal personnel change started a controversy due to Ms. Chen’s career history.

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Kathy Chen started her career as a engineer in the People’s Liberation Army. Later, she left for the private sector. After working in sales at PC vendor Compaq and network equipment provider 3COM, Kathy Chen became CEO of CA-Jinchen, a software joint venture between California-based CA Technologies and China’s Ministry of Public Security. Ms. Chen also worked for Cisco, which is reported to have helped China’s security apparatus build the Great Firewall of China. Chen’s former working history sent waves across the Twittersphere, and those Chinese users feared that Twitter might start working closely with the Communist Government to censor online sentiment and issue blanket bans on sites.

People’s worry is fairly reasonable. Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009, while local social media substitutes are tightly screened by Chinese government and politically sensitive posts are normally deleted by supervisors. Therefore, Twitter has become a popular alternative for those political dissidents living overseas to express their sentiments and opinions.

One Tweet posts:”It’s only reasonable to question the direction of a company by its personnel decisions.” And many others retweet a picture that indicates Twitter’s possible cooperation with the Chinese Government. @badiucao posts:”【Death of Twitter】Deep worry about twitter hiring@kathychen2016 as China MD. Itz a murder of freespeech.” @lss007 implies that “This is a wrong decision,@KathyChen has a military background ,Perhaps she is a CCP spy.”

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In an open statement, Twitter said it was common practice for the Chinese government to assign graduates to jobs in the 1980s. Chen’s computer science degree made her a prime candidate for a job as a junior engineer in the People’s Liberation Army. “When the Chinese economy further opened up with reform in the early 1990s, Kathy chose to pursue her passion for a technology career by switching to the private sector in 1994.” Twitter also emphasized that Kathy Chen had never worked for the Ministry of Public Security in China.

But apart from Kathy Chen’s controversial background, what can we learn from this appointment? Social media websites, despite their inaccessibility in China, regard China as a new territory for revenues. Facebook has indicated it wants to launch a version of its social networking site in China, and Google reportedly is taking steps to launch a Chinese version of its Google Play app store. Chinese companies are also trying to promote their products to Twitter’s 320 million user base include tech brands Lenovo Group, and Huawei Technologies, as well as domestic media outlets like the state-owned Xinhua news agency, and People’s Daily.

Thus, the appointment of Kathy Chen can be read as “laying the groundwork for an eventual China debut to sell advertising and other services to Chinese companies for their global platforms. ” Twitter, despite is huge popularity around the world, is also under huge pressure to boost its revenue and profits and find a practical way to achieve sustainable revenue growth. As Kathy Chen’s background associated with the Chinese army and the Ministry of Public Security does not necessarily mean that she has helped to crush the freedom of speech or build the Great Firewall. However, her background implies that Kathy Chine might have deep connections with both the Chinese government and business group, especially technology giants. As her opening statement on Twitter pointed out, her main target is to “create more value for Chinese enterprises, creators, partners and developers.” From a business perspective, this appointment might be a home run for Twitter.

 

References:

Twitter’s new China head was a People’s Liberation Army engineer who worked on military security

http://mashable.com/2016/04/19/kathy-chen-twitter/#T6pyl1hoCPqF

http://www.forbes.com/sites/dougyoung/2016/04/18/twitter-flits-to-china-with-first-country-chief/#6e82a6722e1a

 

5 comments

  1. Really interesting post! I think Twitter is taking a new route for social media platforms in China. We’ve seen Google and Facebook attempt to stand up to the Chinese government/their restrictions, ultimately resulting in limited success within the country. Twitter may be taking a new path that the others did not, somewhat bending their knee to the Chinese authorities, in an attempt to capitalize on this lucrative market. Could this be an attempt to quell their “user issue,” which many people watching Twitter assume is the largest issue facing the platform? Overall, great post on a topic that I am finding more and more interesting to learn about!

  2. ajsalcetti · ·

    Very interesting post. As a stockholder of the company (sadly so I must say), I am always curious what is going on with the firm as it tries to increase users, revenue, and ultimately the share price. As I read your post, I was thinking exactly what you wrote in the last paragraph. While her background sure does have question marks from her far past, her more recent past was with US based private sector jobs and I’d like to think anything army related was at a significantly different time in her life. I think this is actually a big positive for the company as they and all tech companies try to find a way to monetize and penetrate China either directly or indirectly. They are laying the groundwork, and perhaps even her old connections may be beneficial should the government ever start to consider opening up the great firewall to outsiders. Time will tell, but I think this is a low risk, high reward hire for the company that needs to start hitting home runs.

  3. Nice post. I want to look into this more deeply…

  4. Im thinking this is a great pick up. Twitter needs a presence in china, and i think Kathy might be the girl to make it all happen. Her job history seems legit, she knows the right people and has the experience. Interested to see how this all plays out

  5. Its interesting to think of a personnel change, from so far away, as being so impactful. I question though how important Ms. Chen can really be in the transformation of China’s Twitter usage. With a population that has been hard to crack, a new method might be needed?

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