Kathy Chen, Twitter’s newly-hired managing director in China, has raised eyebrows and ire across the Twitterverse over her past military work and her role in enabling government censorship of the Internet.
Access to Twitter has been blocked in mainland China since 2009, but the San Francisco-based social media giant explained in a statement that it hired Chen to “help us identify ways in which Twitter’s platform and technology assets can be utilized to create further value” for Chinese companies.
“As a global platform, we are already engaged with advertisers, content providers and influencers across greater China to help them reach audiences around the world,” the statement said. “Going forward, we will look to Kathy’s leadership to help us identify ways in which Twitter’s platform and technology assets can be utilized to create further value for enterprises, creators, influencers, partners and developers in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.”
But Chen’s history with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Silicon Valley giant Cisco and CA-Jinchen, a company that collaborated with the Ministry of Public Security to develop Internet filtering products, has left many Chinese fearful that Twitter will work closely with China’s brutally repressive regime to quash dissent.
Many companies that are blocked in China, including Facebook and Google, still conduct business in the nation of 1.3 billion potential consumers, targeting Chinese companies that serve foreign customers or the ever-growing number of Chinese travelers abroad. While Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has courted the communist regime in Beijing, Twitter had previously balked at the cost of doing business in a country with severe restrictions on free expression. The company’s shift has angered and alarmed many in China and beyond.
“Chinese Twitter users were highly curious about Twitter’s new managing director for Greater China—and they were repelled instantly,” wrote Yaxue Cao, a Chinese-born writer and human writes advocate who now lives in the United States. “Chinese tweeps—though not just Chinese tweeps—sneered out of disappointment and concern.”
Twitter had become a popular social media alternative for Chinese people—especially those living abroad—looking for a forum for free expression. It’s main microblogging rival, Sina Weibo, is closely monitored and controlled by the ruling regime, with posts deemed offensive often scrubbed from the site. Many prominent Chinese dissidents, including the famed artist Ai Weiwei, have embraced Twitter despite, or in some cases because of, the government’s prohibition.
Chen, who graduated with a computer science degree from Beijing Jiaotong University in 1987, then joined the PLA’s strategic missile command where she worked as a programmer on top-secret missile design projects. In 1994, she became head of China sales at US-based computer company Digital Equipment Corporation. She subsequently worked for a series of American tech companies in China, including Compaq, 3Com, Microsoft and Cisco. Chen was also CEO of CA-Jinchen, a joint venture between US software maker Computer Associates International and the Ministry of Public Security.
It is her work at Cisco and CA-Jinchen that has most incensed Chinese Twitter users and other concerned individuals. Cisco has come under fire for selling advanced Internet surveillance and control software to China and allegedly collaborated with the Beijing regime in the development of its Golden Shield censorship and surveillance project, also known as the “Great Firewall.”
“Cisco has been criticized for selling high-end network devices to help authorities in China to build its national firewall,” US-based Chinese dissident Yunchao Wen tweeted. “Kathy Chen served Cisco China as its general manager between 2010 and 2013, and was responsible for cooperating with the government. It’s worth investigating how much of a role she had in the construction of the Great Firewall of China.”
After CCTV, China’s state-run television network, announced Chen’s appointment, she further angered critics—especially victims of regime oppression and brutality—by tweeting, “let’s work together to tell great China story to the world!”