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.
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.”
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.