That was fast.
Kathy Chen, Twitter’s managing director of Greater China, has left the company only eight months after joining.
Chen announced the news on Twitter, naturally, via a tweetstorm on Dec. 31—a move most companies employ when they want to bury bad news.
Chen’s departure comes amid a wave of high-ranking staff exits at Twitter. But hers is remarkable in that her appointment, to begin with, marked one of the more bizarre developments in China’s tech industry over the last year.
Twitter, like Facebook, has been inaccessible in China for years thanks to the Great Firewall, which blocks consumer access to its site and related services. Unlike Facebook, however, Twitter has been relatively vocal in expressing its lack of interest in getting unblocked in China. When then-CEO Dick Costolo visited China in 2014, the company clearly stated it had no plans to push for a ban lift (link in Chinese) that would let it launch its consumer-facing service there. The company’s position didn’t change in 2015 when it announced it would open an office in Hong Kong to sell ad space to Chinese advertisers.
Given the company’s stated lack of interest in an official China launch, and the mundane nature of ad sales, the announcement of Chen’s hiring in April by Twitter directly to the press was remarkably high profile. More notably, almost as soon as the former Microsoft employee was hired, her background in China’s People’s Liberation Army came to light. This quickly drew suspicion, from Twitter’s community of overseas Chinese activists and firewall-jumping programmers. Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao called her appointment “a murderof free speech (sic).”
Moreover, during her tenure at the company, Chen filled her feed with retweets from People’s Daily and Xinhua—two of China’s state media outlets. Her taste tended to lean towards innocuous clickbait rather than blatant pro-party propaganda. But this likely did little to allay fears, however irrational, that Chinese users might be censored or monitored.
A few weeks ago, Twitter announced that the Hong Kong office Chen oversaw would be shuttered, with some of the staff relocating to Singapore. At the time, Twitter said she would remain with the company.
Her exit has been welcomed by Chinese activists on Twitter.