Some Chinese netizens say Twitter’s recent appointment of a regional executive with a background in the country's military and state security apparatus has quashed any hope of maintaining a censorship-free micro-blogging platform.
Since last week, when Kathy Chen was appointed Twitter's first managing director for China, Chinese users of the U.S. microblogging site have raised concerns over Chen's past links to the Chinese government and wondered if their freedom of speech on the platform would be compromised.
Although blocked in China, Twitter is a popular platform for Chinese — especially those living overseas — to freely express themselves in their native language. While China has produced homegrown equivalents such as Weibo, the government exerts strict controls over what can be said on them and by whom.
For years, Chinese netizens said Twitter’s lax registration requirements, which document and index search activity and private chat records, left Beijing government censors largely unable to identify them.
But now they doubt Twitter’s platform security.
"This is indeed somewhat puzzling,” wrote one microblogger who declined to be identified. “Why did an American IT giant fancy someone with so obvious a Communist background?
“It is no secret that Chen’s former employer, CISCO, has unusual relations with the Chinese government,” they continued. “Another of her former employers, a Chinese company, helped the Chinese government in the Sino-U.S. cyber war.”
“Twitter has fallen, almost like Weibo,” a Chinese netizen who uses the handle "Simba" told VOA’s Mandarin Service on Sunday. “I think this is entirely possible. I am not optimistic about it.”
Weibo is one of China’s most popular web sites, whose domestic market penetration mirrors that of Twitter in the United States. Heavily-censored by government officials, Weibo, founded in 2009, has more than a quarter billion subscribers and sees more than 100 million posts daily.
Some Chinese Twitter users, however, believe critics of Chen’s appointment are overacting, describing Twitter as a trusted U.S. company. Even if it hired someone with suspicious background, they said, its corporate culture, servers, technology and policies will not change.
Because of Chen’s "low-level position, she will have no access to users’ privacy information," posted one subscriber.
"Twitter has only one purpose [and] that is to attract China’s rich to advertise on Twitter. Big companies such as Lenovo and Hainan Airlines, etc., they have special advertising needs,” the blogger continued.
“Twitter cares about profit. [There are] so many rich people in China,” said another. “As for Chinese users, no need to worry if the Party wants to find you, they don’t need to invade your Twitter account.”
In an emailed statement, Twitter said it was usual for the Chinese government to assign graduates to jobs in the 1980s. Chen's computer science degree made her a prime candidate for a job as a junior engineer in the People's Liberation Army, the company said.
Chen, who will be based in Hong Kong, was most recently an executive with Microsoft Asia-Pacific Research and Development Group before being hired by Twitter.
She has not publicly responded to Twitter user concerns.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin Service. Some information for this report was provided by AP.