It was unfortunate that the day Kathy Chen was announced as Twitter’s inaugural managing director for ‘Greater China’ (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau) last week was also the day she signed up to the 9th largest social network in the world. Clearly a first-timer — although there’s no denying there is immense value in fresh eyes — her entrance to both Twitter the social network and Twitter the multi-billion dollar company has attracted serious carping from a wide range of stakeholders. Many of whom, of course, turned to the network itself to tweet their disapproval.
Aside from selecting a Twitter handle with an expiry date, @KathyChen2016’s opening gambit displayed an unintentional knack for playing on the fears of western social media users who are increasingly concerned about privacy, surveillance, and freedom of speech. Their concerns include the extent to which tech companies work with their own governments, and extend to the moves and expansion plans these companies may have overseas. There was this conversation with Xinhua, the official news authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), where Chen said she was looking forward ‘to [a] closer partnership in the future.’ In response to state television broadcaster CCTV she stated the two should ‘work together to tell great China story to the world’. It was a clear reference to President Xi Jinping’s 2013 appeal ‘to tell the China story well’ that was subsequently adopted as a slogan by various limbs of the Chinese Government. President Xi Jinping recently reiterated this motto and last month the Communist Party’s publicity chief attended a ‘how to tell China stories well’ seminar and called on experts and celebrities to get involved.
But as the Chinese Government travels on this journey to tell its story better, something all governments are struggling with, it should come as no surprise that social media users don’t want Twitter actively involved. Tweeted all on day one, Chen's posts attracted intense scrutiny and were perceived as a blatant attempt to cozy up to a government which excels in, and has disturbingly re-defined, the meaning of Internet censorship. But, on the other hand, this will be a big part of the managing director's job. Given Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009 and will certainly remain so for some time to come, Chen’s role from her Hong Kong office will be to work closely with Chinese businesses and organisations who want to use Twitter to reach global audiences and new markets. Government departments and state-run media agencies will be some of her most important clients.
Twitter is not the only banned Internet-based company with a physical presence in China. Google, Facebook and LINE all have China offices and/or shops, and these are in Beijing and Shanghai, not Hong Kong. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to woo the Chinese government have become legendary and he has copped plenty of slack for them from Chinese netizens, despite the country's censors coming to his rescue.
While Chen’s tweets to state-run media could be dismissed as too much, too soon, her comments about a ‘cute’ People Liberation Army (PLA)-capped dog hit too close to home. A Baidu wiki biography and various interviews briefly outline Chen’s post-university seven years in PLA’s Second Artillery Corps (now the Army Rocket Force). In addition to her role as CEO of CA Jinchen (1999-2005), a joint venture between China’s Ministry of Public Security and a California-based software company. Given the sensitivity involved in such roles, one can assume Chen held a high security clearance in at least one, and likely in both positions. In a 2004 interview, Chen described the antivirus software produced by CA Jinchen as an ‘email filtering gateway’ and cited Falun Gong as an example of the type of politically sensitive and harmful information the company could filter. One of CA Jinchen’s clients was the technical centre behind China’s Great Firewall.
None of this is good news for Twitter. It must have known appointing someone with connections to the country’s opaque military and security agencies and links to organisations that facilitate Internet censorship would create a stir. And Chen’s hasty series of tweets that were perceived as pro-CCP made this stir a spectacle. But perhaps Twitter didn’t think this through. For example, changes made to Chen’s LinkedIn account to delete references to the Ministry of Public Security were made only this week.
Across two op-eds, China’s Global Times attacked those complaining about Twitter’s new appointment and used the occasion to promote China’s global role as an Internet giant. And indeed China is such a giant. Its rapidly-growing tech and mobile industries are some of the most innovative in the world and there’s a lot at stake. Which is why the Global Times shouldn't be shocked that background checks are done on senior foreign nationals employed in the industry, a procedure large Chinese tech companies surely undertake as well. Imagine if Internet company Tencent picked an individual with close CIA and US military connections to lead its push into the US and that person kicked off their Weibo presence with a series of posts about working with Fox News and the NY Times to share the ‘American dream.’ One would expect a bemused, and possibly angry, reaction from Chinese netizens.
While there don't seem to be any current links between Chen and her ex government employers, China’s public security apparatus would undoubtedly benefit from information she now has access to. The Chinese government would be foolish not to reach out to someone who was (at one time) one of its own. That's its job. Insights that can be gleaned on the inner workings and politics of Silicon Valley, including interactions these online companies have with their own and overseas governments, would be a valuable commodity. Any well-resourced intelligence community would be seeking to generate such a line of reporting. But that’s a conundrum for Twitter’s management and any organisation around the world that hires an overseas national with close links to his or her home country's national security community.
Like other western Internet companies, Twitter finds itself uncomfortably wedged. Caught between its mission statement, which its current consumer base subscribes to, and the compromises it would have to make to break into the lucrative Chinese market. Its current users are keeping it afloat but it is still makes a net loss. Access to the Chinese market could vastly improve its balance sheet. But at what cost? Its position is not dissimilar to those in which many states now find themselves. Australia is wedged more than most. Grappling to show strength in the face of uncomfortable moves by China, such as those in the South China Sea, while burdened by the highest exposure in the world (as a share of total exports) to the Chinese economy. Like states, many large Internet companies are caught on these thorny realities. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Twitter's own users will be holding the network accountable every step of the way.