Twitter’s Pitch to China: We May Be Blocked, But You Can Still Buy Our Ads

Twitter at CES Asia
Janko Roettgers / Variety

The Chinese government may not like Twitter, but Twitter clearly loves China. Or rather, advertising dollars from Chinese companies.

That’s why the company is having a significant presence at CES Asia in Shanghai this week, where it is trying to pitch itself as the connection to global culture.  Twitter is the only Western social media company that has its own booth on the CES Asia show floor, and the company held a session as part of CES Asia’s conference program Wednesday titled “From Chinese firms to global brands.”

“We hope that in the future, Twitter will have more cooperations with Chinese companies trying to go abroad,” said Cathy Chen, Twitter’s new GM of Greater China, during the event, which also featured Aliza Knox, the company’s VP of online sales for Asia and Latin America.

Cathy Chen, Twitter’s new Greater China GM, speaking at CES Asia
Janko Roettgers / Variety

However, doing business in China is never easy for Western companies. That’s ever more true for Twitter, which is still being blocked by China’s great firewall, which means that most Chinese consumers have no easy way of accessing the service.

There are ways around the censorship, but in the absence of a critical mass of users, it simply doesn’t warrant the effort for many Chinese. Instead, they’re flocking to Chinese competitors like Weibo.

That leaves Twitter in a bit of a conundrum. The company doesn’t seem willing to give up on its commitment to free speech and censor its service for Chinese users, but it would still love to get Chinese companies to buy ads to reach overseas Chinese and other consumers in markets around the world.

But many of the executives at these companies may not be active Twitter users, either. That’s why Chen’s and Knox’s talk at CES Asia at times felt like a Twitter 101, with Knox referencing anyone from Radiohead to Stephen Curry to Elon Musk as examples for successful Twitter usage.

She also highlighted some data points that made Twitter look good, including its monthly worldwide audience of 820 million users — a number that includes logged-out users. Twitter has long struggled to grow its base of logged-in users.

Chen’s hire, which was officially announced last month, can also be seen as a commitment to China, but it also illustrates how doing business in the country could backfire for Twitter.

Free speech activists criticized her past membership in the People’s Liberation Army, as well as her work for a security company that reportedly was involved in building the very censorship software that now blocks Chinese consumers from accessing Twitter and other services.

Twitter declined to make Chen available for an interview for this story.