China's Twitterati Rattled by Jack Dorsey's Pick for New Chief

  • New executive tweets to official Chinese media accounts
  • Kathy Chen hired as Twitter seeks to expand footprint

Twitter Inc. announced a new top executive for China last week, but her tenure is off to a rocky start after her background and initial tweets unsettled users in the region.

Kathy Chen, Twitter’s first managing director for Greater China, is a software engineer who worked for the People’s Liberation Army before moving into the private sector, where she was employed by a cybersecurity firm and then at Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. Chen, who created a Twitter account last month, mentioned in her first tweets that she was looking forward to working with state broadcaster CCTV News and official state media Xinhua News Agency.

A swift response followed. "It’s not a place for CCP propaganda, go away" one user tweeted, referring to China’s communist party, while another said "Stop deals with Party mouthpieces local Chinese can’t easily access #censorship #hypocrisy." Even though Twitter is blocked in China, there are users from the country who find ways to bypass controls and participate in the lively debates that take place on the forum for posting and sharing 140-character updates.

"She may appear more empathetic to the Chinese government," said Cheung Siu Wai, who teaches journalism and communications at Hong Kong Baptist University. At the same time, he said such efforts probably won’t do much to relax the government’s stance on banning Twitter in the county. "We don’t think that’s a way to make any headway into the Chinese market."

Twitter said Chen’s role will be to get the company’s "enterprise offerings -- such as advertising, customer service, data analytics and developer platform -- in front of Chinese businesses and startups to help them reach a global audience." The San Francisco-based company also responded to criticisms of Chen’s background with the People’s Liberation Army.

"In the late 1980s, the Chinese government often directed Chinese university graduates into their first jobs," the company said in an e-mailed statement. "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."

Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive officer, announced Chen’s appointment on April 14. Later that day Chen tweeted to CCTV and Dorsey from her brand new account: "Let’s work together to tell great China story to the world!". A few hours later she responded to a congratulatory post from Xinhua: "Thanks and look forward to closer partnerships in the future!"

Even though Twitter is blocked to Chinese citizens, many official state media companies have their own accounts. Twitter, which has been facing a slowdown in user growth, has been seeking to add products and expand outside of the U.S. in order to fuel revenue.

Weibo Corp., which cooperates with China’s censors, is China’s biggest online forum, with more than 236 million monthly active users. While Twitter isn’t about to change its policies so that it can start adding users in China, the company, along with Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. are keen to have a foothold in order to court advertisers and generate revenue.

"The situation inside China is very complicated," Cheung said.

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