On Friday, Twitter appointed Kathy Chen as the new Director of Greater China, inciting widespread protest among overseas and domestic Chinese Twitter users. They fear that Communist Party member Chen will enforce Weibo style censorship on their tweets, endanger their personal information, and ruin the safe haven of free speech that they’ve found in the US-based social media outlet.
Chinese Internet Censorship
To understand how Twitter fits into the Chinese internet landscape, I think its important to look at it as a whole. A Chinese service similar to Twitter is Weibo, often dubbed the Chinese version of Twitter. It allowing users to send short messages containing multimedia like photos, links, and location and is convenient for gathering daily news reports, discovering creative inspiration, and connecting with friends.
But many complain of its censorship, often referred to in Chinese as “the great firewall.” Posts containing controversial search terms are often removed, as we saw during the recent release of the Panama Papers and continue to see with subject such as the Tiananmen Massacre.
Although Chinese netizens use hilarious puns and plays-on-words to circumvent censorship to let their voice be heard, criticizing the government is a dangerous game. Just this last week we saw the human rights lawyer Ge Yongxi detained for sharing a joke critical of Xi Jinping’s relation with the Panama Papers. I’m not sure to what extent people are prosecuted in real life as opposed to simply having their post removed from the website, but I’m sure that the unstable situation is sure to make anyone squirm.
Twitter in China
Chinese Twitter is by no means part of a mainstream Chinese social media portfolio. For one, there is a significant technological barrier of acquiring often times paid VPN software. Second, the fact that it has low rates of use makes it unpopular among consumers who want to interact with their friends. This has made Twitter somewhat of a clandestine internet destination for Chinese people.
Chinese political activists have latched onto this service, says a recent Huanqiu article, and users who are able to successfully use a VPN to “wall-jump,” or get around the Great Firewall, have turned Twitter into a very specific outlet where political activists can voice their views and enjoy complete and uncensored free speech. The current Chinese Twitter environment is a safe haven for anonymous online political dissidents who often have pretty radical viewpoints.
Enter Kathy Chen
The choice to put Cathy Chen in power is a real threat to the concerns of users of Chinese Twitter. Domestic and overseas Chinese have been hostile, popular Twitter account @badiucao proclaiming that “Twitter is dead.” This is because because Chen has worked for China Public Security Bureau as well as for the People’s Liberation Army Artillery Research Center, meaning that she has demonstrated to be a dependable CPC member.
Another surprising omission to Chen’s resume is any experience with Twitter—when she was appointed on Friday, her account only contained 18 tweets. It seems that she has been hired to help the company’s Chinese advertisement market which has the potential to help Chinese companies reach a wider American audience. In a video post, she claims she wants to “create value” for enterprise users, but it remains to be seen if and when her military technology background will come into play and how it will affect Chinese Twitter.
I do not expect that Chen will begin a Chinese-style crackdown on free speech from within Twitter, because after all, this is an American company with users mostly outside of the US. But it does seem like a strange choice of leadership, given that her views will likely be at odds with the users who she is supposed to be serving. At this early moment, I have a feeling that this may be a case of an American company putting its foot in its mouth when it comes to cross-cultural relations, which surely wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.
I look forward to seeing how this story unfolds. What do you think? Tweet me @rachelcritelli to let me know.