Twitter loses its head of China after less than a year

Kathy Chen had caused controversy over potential censorship due to her ties to the Chinese military

Financial trends and news by Steven Loeb
January 3, 2017
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Welcome to 2017, everyone! I hope you had a nice vacation!

My New Year's Eve was spent with my significant other, drinking sparkling wine, eating lots of cheese and crackers, and watching Mariah Carey make a fool of herself in front of millions of people. Pretty low key, but nice and relaxing. Twitter, meanwhile, was likely having a lot less fun, as the company had just lost the head of one of its most important markets.

On December 31, Kathy Chen, Twitter's Managing Director of China, announced that she was leaving her job a mere eight months after first signing on back in April of 2016. The reveal came in a series of Tweets, in which Chen lauded the company, and its growth in the region, citing the "400% over the past 2 years" in Twitter's Chinese advertising base.

So if things are going so well, why did she decide to leave? From her Tweets, it sounds as if a good portion of Chen's responsibilities, which included working with advertisers had been handed off. She admitted that the Chinese ad sales responbilities had been handed off to Twitter's APAC (Asia Pacific) office, rather than the office Chen had been heading in Hong Kong. 

Going forward, the Hong Kong office will remain open, "to maintain our Greater China presence & for business opportunities with Chinese companies," Chen said, though there's no word on who will be taking over her position. VatorNews reached out to Twitter for comment on Chen's departure, and the future of the Hong Kong office, andw we will update this story if we learn more. 

Chen is the third Twitter executive in Asia to depart in the last couple of months. In November, Rishi Jaitly, head of India, announced he was leaving after four years. He was followed by Parminder Singh, Twitter’s managing director for India, Southeast Asia and MENA, who left just two days later

Not everyone will be sad to see Chen go. Only a week after her appointment, she became a lighting rod for controversy when it was revealed that she had started her career working for the Chinese military in the 1980s.

Twitter has become an alternative to government-run services like Weibo, which has more than 236 million monthly active users, but who are under strict controls over what they can, and cannot say. Despite being banned in the country, there are estimated to be 10 million Chinese users on Twitter, which allows them the type of freedom they are otherwise not afforded.

As a result, multiple Chinese Twitter users, as well as Chinese activists, began to speak out about Chen's appointment, expressing fear over a potential increase in censorship.

Social media and censorship in China 

China is well known for cracking down on social media, and for banning many American networks from operating. The main issue stopping social networks from being able to operate fully in China are those aforementioned issues with censorship. LinkedIn, which was able to strike a deal to enter the country in 2014, learned this lesson the hard way.

After the company made its China announcement, the company also came under fire after it admitted that it was only able to operate there because it complied with Chinese censorship laws. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner was forced to defend the decision in a blog post.

"As a condition for operating in the country, the government of China imposes censorship requirements on Internet platforms. LinkedIn strongly supports freedom of expression and fundamentally disagrees with government censorship," Weiner said.

"At the same time, we also believe that LinkedIn’s absence in China would deny Chinese professionals a means to connect with others on our global platform, thereby limiting the ability of individual Chinese citizens to pursue and realize the economic opportunities, dreams and rights most important to them."

Even though it isn't even allowed to operate in China, Facebook also found itself in some hot water as well just from the appearance of cowtowing to censorship rules in the country.

It was reported in November that Facebook was developing a censorship tool that would stop posts from appearing based on the geographic location of the user. That would let a third-party, likely a Chinese company, would have full control and be able to decide which stories and topics users get to see. Combined with the scandals surrounding the company’s trending news, and the proliferation of fake news during the election cycle, did not help inspire confidence in Facebook's editorial stances.

These censorship issues, which dogged Chen right out of the gate, aren't going away any time soon, either, as China has been cracking down even harder on U.S. new sites. 

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