Chang Ping: Twitter and the “Great China Story”

The recent announcement of veteran tech executive Kathy Chen’s new position as Twitter’s Greater China Managing Director sparked serious concern among longtime users of the American microblogging platform over her work history with Chinese government and security organizations. Chen’s appointment comes as President Xi Jinping has revitalized an external propaganda strategy implemented by his predecessor Hu Jintao, launching new English-language state media ventures, calling on established overseas state newsrooms to “better tell China’s story to the world”, and reportedly enlisting the help of Western PR firms; judging from Chen’s inaugural posts reaching out to state-run media outlets on , many suspect that she will be aiding in crafting that tale from inside Twitter headquarters. Blocked in China since 2009, Twitter has nonetheless attracted many Chinese dissidents (inside and outside of China, the former forced to find ways around China’s Great Firewall to do so), and they have rallied on the platform to warn that Chen’s role in the company could spell the end of its usefulness to them.

Germany-based Chinese journalist (whose given name is Zhang Ping) published a Chinese-language article at Deutsche-Welle putting Kathy Chen’s new position at Twitter in the context of Beijing’s long-running goal to tell the “Great China Story” to the globe. CDT has translated the article in full. Contextual hyperlinks have all been added to the translation by CDT editors.

Twitter and the “Great China Story”

by Chang Ping

There was once a reporter in Guangzhou who drew ridicule for always starting reports like this: “So-and-so never thought in his wildest dreams that…” Even that reporter could have never thought in his wildest dreams that there would come a day when the news would be written like this: Internet users never thought in their wildest dreams—a Twitter official has reached out to China Central Television: “Let’s work together to tell great China story to the world!

This tweet has left many Twitter users absolutely dumbfounded. No, their eyes were not deceiving them. Kathy Chen, Twitter’s newly appointed Managing Director for Greater China, had indeed tweeted out the message. After taking office, her first action on Twitter, her public “inaugural address,” if you will, was to start courting CCTV and Xinhua News.

The Chinese Communist Party propaganda machine has referred to the “Great China Story” countless times. This same machine, in times of great famine, has said that “rice fields are yielding tens of thousands of jin per square acre.” When the Red Army was firing their guns in the streets, it said that “the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is Good.” And when the “June Fourth” democracy movement was being crushed, it declared the movement a “counterrevolutionary riot.” Today, it proclaims that China has its own “special circumstances,” which necessitate the resolute rejection of democracy, freedom, human rights, and other such “Western values.”

To those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, regions that also lie within “Greater China,” the “greatest” story out of CCTV at the moment is none other than the owner of the Causeway Bay bookstore, which for years had been publishing books banned by the CCP. He “voluntarily” snuck into mainland China to “surrender” to Chinese authorities, “cooperate with investigations,” publically admit guilt on CCTV and its affiliates, and to declare that he wished to give up his foreign passport. There’s also the story of Chinese police forcibly deporting Taiwanese “criminals” to mainland China, where they were made to confess their guilt on CCTV.

Contrary to what many Westerners may think, CCTV has never been satisfied telling the “Great China Story” to people in mainland China alone. Rather, as a major exponent of the CCP’s “Grand External Propaganda Strategy,” CCTV is constantly looking for partners all over the world, through which it intends to peddle these stories to all of humanity. The Chinese government has brought one fourth of the world population under its control, dictating how they consume news and culture. They then use this “giant marketplace” as a bargaining chip. Add to that the harassment, threats, refusal to issue visas to reporters, and other measures, and this is how they coerce foreign media to cooperate.

Whether it be because of greed or fear, it’s not surprising that foreign media end up cooperating with the CCP. However, many people assumed Twitter would be the last to cave in. Like many other media organizations that do not submit to CCP censorship, Twitter is blocked in Mainland China. In Twitter’s case, it has been blocked since 2009. As one of the biggest representatives of self-media in the internet age, Twitter has been called a “bistro of eternal freedom” by idealistic Chinese internet users. Many remain committed to “scaling the wall” to use it.

Helping to Filter Politically Sensitive Information?

“I never thought a bushy-eyed guy like you would betray the revolution!” Just like comedian Chen Peisi’s famous crosstalk line goes, Kathy Chen’s statements have astonished these loyal Twitter users. Never mind that Twitter has never thanked them for their loyalty and trouble. They’ve never cared about that. However, this kind of offense and humiliation is unacceptable. They have already expressed great doubts and strongly protested over her hiring. They have even started a joint petition on the White House website.

It gets more ironic. Internet users have discovered that Kathy Chen may have ties to the Chinese military. She previously served as the general manager of Computer Associates-Jinchen, a joint venture between an American internet company and China’s Ministry of Public Security. One of its software products was used to filter email. And what were they filtering? As Kathy Chen explains, “…We would filter content for, possibly the Falun Gong or politically sensitive or harmful information.” The Chinese authorities were apparently very pleased with this software. Chen received the “2004 Outstanding Contribution to the Safeguarding of Chinese Information Security Award.”

She later joined Cisco, an American company widely suspected of helping the Chinese government erect its internet firewall. At Cisco she served as Senior Vice President for China. Her responsibilities included “special focus on establishing good government relations with various government departments and affiliated agencies.”

Now, this is a “Great China Story”—it is very possible that someone who once helped the Chinese government block Twitter has now been hired as Twitter’s Managing Director for Greater China. And she’s not seen as a traitor. Rather, she has publically declared her intention to continue working with the Chinese government.

Even though Twitter has officially stated that Kathy Chen’s main job is to boost advertising, not to build its platform, it goes without saying that her work experience and “inaugural address” have left Twitter users feeling disgusted and concerned.

Chinese Government Working Hard to “Connect the World”

When I was training fellow media professionals in Paris at the end of last year, I talked about how I define self-media. I discussed my own experience as an example. My first job after graduating from university in the early 90s was founding my own news magazine. I wrote and prepared its content, delivered it to the printers myself and distributed it myself. I achieved economic success. Although at that time the magazine was still all typed on a typewriter, I still call what I was doing “self-media.” But as for Weibo, WeChat and other social media under the regulation of the CCP Propaganda Department, no matter how technologically advanced the internet or people’s phones may be, it would be difficult to classify these services as authentic “self-media.”

The “self” in self-media, or the “new” in new media, lies not in its production or technology. Technology only provides greater possibilities, allowing everyday people to supplement and challenge the elite-controlled traditional media. This enabling of relatively independent and autonomous publication and broadcast of information provides everyday people with a platform through which to make their voices heard, and each of these voices can be treated equally. Facebook and Twitter have succeeded in providing this value to their users in most places of the world. They have become classic examples of new media. And that is precisely why they have been arbitrarily blocked by a Chinese government that seeks to control public opinion.

Only through fundamentally changing their values, for example accepting the censorship and control of the Chinese government, would it be possible to enter mainland China unimpeded. They must first become just like all the other online Chinese media—new media by name, traditional media under authoritarian control in actuality. Without that kind of fundamental change, no matter how much polluted air Mark Zuckerberg breathes, or no matter how warmly Kathy Chen embraces Xinhua News on her first day as a Twitter account holder, Twitter won’t gain much other than offense and humiliation from its current users.

Ms. Chen has since posted a traditional “Chinese knot,” with the phrase “connecting you and me” written in Chinese and English. “Connecting the world” is also one of Zuckerberg’s mantras. But they don’t talk about how hypocritical it is to advocate “connection” on one hand, and on the other attempt to ingratiate oneself with an information-blocking authoritarian regime. This low-brow “chicken soup for the soul” covers up the real truth—that the Chinese government at once blocks information and yet strives to connect with the world under their own rules, to relentlessly “tell the Great China Story” to all of humanity. Therefore, to merely advocate “connecting the world” is simply not enough. That is, unless your intention is to deceive. [Chinese]

Before moving to Germany, Chang Ping had worked as deputy editor-in-chief at liberal Chinese newspaper Southern Metropolis Weekly, and his writing frequently irked censors in China. Recently, Chang Ping reported that his family members had been detained and threatened after he published an article criticizing the detention of a journalist in connection with a strongly-worded open letter calling for Xi Jinping’s resignation. Chang details the incident, as well as greater efforts by Beijing to pressure overseas journalists, in an op-ed for The New York Times.

Translation by Little Bluegill.