Sinosphere: Twitter’s Chief in China Raises Eyebrows Over Military Past and Résumé

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A tourist in Pingyao, China. Many Chinese users of Twitter outside the country reacted harshly to the hiring of Kathy Chen. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

On the day Twitter named Kathy Chen as its new chief for China, she turned to the service to introduce herself to its vast and voluble user base.

“Thank you very much for your support,” said Ms. Chen, Twitter’s new managing director for greater China and a veteran of the Chinese operations of Microsoft and Cisco, in a short video posted on Twitter late last week by the company’s official greater China account.

But for some of Twitter’s Chinese-speaking users, that support will not be arriving anytime soon. The reason is her résumé: Nearly 30 years before she worked for foreign companies in China, Ms. Chen served a stint in the Chinese military. After that, she was involved in a joint venture that was partly owned by the country’s powerful domestic security ministry.

Like many foreign-owned Internet services, Twitter has long been blocked in China. But Ms. Chen’s appointment — and the stir it has caused — shows the complicated relationship between Twitter, the technology industry and China. The country has some of the world’s strictest limits on online expression, and it requires Internet companies to place servers in the mainland. It has shown little compunction about blocking or banning companies that will not play along.

Even with those limits, China offers a vast and potentially lucrative market. Many companies that are blocked in China, such as Facebook and Google, still do business there, catering to Chinese companies looking to find an audience abroad or to the growing numbers of affluent Chinese travelers.

The contradictions are especially acute for Twitter. While the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has made a public effort of courting the Chinese leadership, Twitter has shown few indications that it was willing to submit to the restrictions that coming to China would require. Emphasizing that stance, Jim Prosser, a Twitter spokesman, said on Monday that the service was not trying to become unblocked in China.

Twitter has become an online home to a number of Chinese political activists abroad, who use it to communicate with one another and to share their views of current events in China with the world. Some of them reacted with condemnation over the weekend to Ms. Chen’s appointment.

“Chinese tweeps — though not just Chinese tweeps — sneered out of disappointment and concern,” wrote Yaxue Cao, a writer born in China and based in the United States who frequently weighs in on human rights issues in China.

Some were incensed that Ms. Chen posted on Friday a message of cooperation to China Central Television, the state-run broadcaster. The language resembled President Xi Jinping’s call to the Chinese media to “tell the China story well.”

In a statement, Dickson Seow, a Twitter spokesman, said that after college in the late 1980s, Ms. Chen was assigned by the Chinese government to become a junior engineer in the People’s Liberation Army. She left in 1994, when the opening of the Chinese economy provided a chance, the statement said.

She then was hired by Computer Associates, an American company, to lead its joint venture in China. The Chinese Ministry of Public Security owned a 20 percent stake in that venture through a local company, the statement said, and Ms. Chen focused on selling antivirus products and never worked for the ministry itself. According to her LinkedIn biography, she worked for Microsoft from 2005 to 2009 and for Cisco from 2009 to 2013, before returning to Microsoft.

At Twitter, Ms. Chen will focus on building its advertising business in China and working with developers and others who interact with the platform. Adding to the complicated relationship between Twitter and China, working with advertisers also includes dealing with Chinese outlets such as Xinhua, the state news agency, and People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s newspaper — outlets that have increased their presence on Twitter in recent years.

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