Twitter′s new head of China operations irks activists | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 19.04.2016
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Twitter's new head of China operations irks activists

The new head of Twitter in China, Kathy Chen, worked previously for the Chinese military. That and a recent batch of tweets have caused many to wonder if her appointment will lead to increased surveillance.

With just 18 tweets to her name, Kathy Chen has little experience with the platform she's now running in mainland China, Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Her resume, however, does include a seven-year stint with institutes and companies linked to the Chinese military - from 1987 to 1994.

That has social media users in China concerned she has ties to the country's Communist Party and state surveillance apparatus, potentially leading to yet further controls over the microblogging platform.

Twitter is blocked in China. It is still used by Chinese dissidents or anyone else hoping to circumvent the country's firewall to get unfettered access to information or to post information from inside China. Chinese users trying to access the service do so using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) that digitally relocate their computer, tablet or smartphone to an address outside of China.

The Communist Party, which controls the flow of information in the country, does so via the so-called 'Great Firewall', strict editorial guidelines for private news outlets, active censorship and monitoring. Weibo, a local platform similar to Twitter, is used by millions of Chinese but is highly censored and monitored through state surveillance operations. The country also operates strictly run state media channels.

After Chen's appointment, both the state-run CCTV news and the China Xinhua News agency tweeted messages at her. She then tweeted back to express her hopes that her new company would establish closer ties with the government-run news outlets.

Chen's background

Chen, after obtaining a degree in computer science in 1987, began working for the People's Liberation Army. For part of that time she headed an anti-virus software company that was indirectly financed by the Ministry of Public Security, which conducts domestic surveillance.

Twitter, in a statement to the AP news agency, said it was common during that time period for the Chinese government to assign jobs to top graduates.

The San Francisco-based company added that Chen's role at the anti-virus software company was to represent the interests of a US tech firm, Computer Associates.

From 1994 onward, Chen worked exclusively for US tech firms in the private sector. Most recently, she worked for Microsoft's Asia-Pacific Research and Development Group.

The jump to Twitter comes just one year after the company opened an office in Hong Kong, even though it has been blocked in China since 2009.The Hong Kong office is now Twitter headquarters for the Greater China region and includes a sales team for advertisers.

Twitter, which has struggled to turn a profit since it was founded ten years ago, derives most of its revenues through advertising. Though the company boasts 300 million users, it is under pressure to boost stalling growth.

In China, the social network is trying to pitch itself as a way for Chinese companies to grow their brands abroad. The platform is only blocked fully in China, North Korea and Iran.

Chen, in a tweeted video below, explains what else she plans to do as the managing director in Hong Kong.

Twitter weighs in

Still, Patrick Poon, who works for the Hong Kong branch of the human rights organization Amnesty International, feels it's unclear exactly who Chen's working for.

One user, writing in Chinese, aimed a tweet at the company's founder and current CEO, Jack Dorsey, saying the move might cause the company to lose loyal users in China.

"Chinese people use Twitter to escape censorship and surveillance from the Chinese government. Only those who respect freedom of speech and information security would make an effort to get rid of the 'Great Firewall' and get access to Twitter. The 'Greater China market' you refer to is only filled with those who are willing to exchange netizens' information for government's protection, like Tencent and Sina [Weibo]. You will lose all your loyal users by establishing a closer tie with Chinese government! Please think it over!

From Australia, an artist shared a graphic to express his concerns for the platform's future in China. The artist, who goes by the name of Badiucao, encouraged Chinese social media users to spread the image while giving him credit for it. It is being shared widely on Weibo in discussions about the appointment of Kathy Chen.

In an email to DW, he wrote:

"We need more explanation to this appointment. Why her? How does Twitter keep being safe and censorship-free with a manager who used to closely cooperate with Chinese government, which is known as the master of censorship throughout the world?"

Additional research by Cherie Chan.

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