Kathy Chen’s Debut and the Fate of Twitter’s Chinese Users

April 23, 2016 Updated: April 26, 2016

For people in China who love freedom, Twitter is the social media platform where the Chinese Communist Party cannot snuff out their expression. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has been shown to pander to the Chinese regime, so Twitter is the natural alternative.

Because Twitter neither deletes tweets nor blocks accounts, it is called an “around-the-clock tavern of freedom” by Chinese users. Even though there are many 50-cent users (paid commentators) and cyber policemen who try to spread misinformation to shape public opinion, experienced users can easily discern them.

But since April 16, Chinese-language Twitter users have been strongly protesting the appointment of Kathy Chen, an experienced computer major with years of employment with the Chinese military, as the firm’s new Greater China Region managing editor. They have gone so far as to create a petition made to the White House protesting her employment in this capacity.

But given that Ms. Chen has yet to put any censorship measures in place, are these Chinese Twitter users just overreacting?

Kathy Chen’s Opaque Political Background

Information available on LinkedIn shows that Chen’s current place of employment is in Hong Kong. Prior to this, she graduated from Beijing Jiaotong University with a major in computer science and worked in China. While in Beijing or Shanghai, she was a senior manager at Microsoft and Cisco. From 1999 to 2005 she worked for CA-Jinchen, a joint venture which, according to her resume, was co-founded by Computer Associates International and China’s Ministry of Public Security, and whose major scope of business covers information security. The Ministry, however, is a Chinese state organ dedicated to censoring such social networking sites as Twitter.

In 2004, having taking the helm at CA-Jinchen, Chen became one of the few female CEOs in the information technology community. Before this, she spent seven years in military employment and then with foreign businesses such as DEC, Compaq and 3COM.

Chen has been praised in the Chinese media and was given a prestigious award in light of her “special contributions to the Chinese security industry.”

In addition to Chen’s “special contributions to the Chinese security industry,” several key terms stand out in the reports about her: “anti-virus developer” and “cybersecurity.”

Those familiar with Chinese politics know that these terms are euphemisms in the technical lexicon of message-blocking firewalls and internet control. Admittedly, Ms. Chen has earned an award that others could only dream of, but Chinese military bodies, such as Unit 61398, are full of IT talent who spearhead the offensives in the digital war between China and the U.S.

The Concerns of Chinese Twitter Users

As Zuckerberg kept waving his olive branches in front of the Communist Party, word had it that Twitter was considering the establishment of a Greater China Region branch. Chinese Twitter users, however, still had the hope that this scenario would not come to pass, or that even if it did, some moral baseline would be maintained.

To their chagrin, the branch was created, and the person in charge of this branch is Kathy Chen, an IT expert with a background in the Chinese military. It’s no wonder that the Chinese circles on Twitter have reacted so strongly.

That the Chinese regime invests massive sums to dominate the untamed corners of the Internet is well-known. Any foreign business that wants to access the Chinese market must abide by two survival principles: to adapt to the local political system, and to abandon all ethical codes of conduct, including human rights sensibilities.

Many American companies, including technology corporations, are indeed following these requirements, and a handful have been sanctioned by the U.S. government. It has been revealed that China’s Golden Shield system of mass cyber-surveillance was completed by the aid of multinational firms.

In mid-January, the U.S. Congress took four tech corporations—Cisco, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google—to task on their compliance with China’s censorship laws. These corporations, however, arrogantly refused the first summons, enraging Americans leading the companies to be heavily criticized.

Of many relevant precedents, the most unforgettable was in 2005 when Yahoo provided Chinese authorities with documents that led to the arrest and sentencing of journalists. In the aftermath of media exposure, however, Yahoo met with widespread criticism. Yahoo eventually paid $17 million in humanitarian aid, donated on behalf of victims’ representatives and their families.

By contrast, Google in 2010 declared that it would no longer tolerate restrictions on its search content and quit the Chinese market. In this era, saying “no” at its own expense automatically made Google a hero in the eyes of many Chinese.

Twitter certainly holds much information about its users. Given how many American high-tech businesses have kowtowed to China, a second Google is unlikely and, given Ms. Chen’s previous role in the military, it’s no surprise that Chinese users feel panic about their future on Twitter.

Perhaps expanding into Greater China is just a business strategy for Twitter. But considering the crucial role that social media plays in this age, it also shoulders responsibility for maintaining and safeguarding Internet freedom. It’s also headquartered in the U.S., a beacon of democracy in the eyes of the world. I therefore hope that U.S. Congress will accept the assistance of experts and Chinese dissidents at all levels and hold a hearing regarding the appointment of Ms. Chen as the head of Twitter’s Greater China Region branch.

Translation by Leo Lee. Editing by Leo Timm.