Twitter appointed Li Fei-Fei, a professor at Stanford University, to its board as an independent director in May. Prior to this, she had served as Google Cloud’s chief scientist for artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The petition against Li’s appointment points out that a number of anti-CCP Twitter users were suspended -- some permanently -- on May 18, days after Li had been appointed to Twitter’s board.
One of these accounts was @Caijinglenyan, which was taken down because its owner supposedly violated Twitter’s rules against platform manipulation and posting identical content on duplicate accounts. Talking to The Epoch Times, however, the owner of the account claimed that it, and other accounts he also owned, were suspended because he exposed Li’s “red background” and her ties to Beijing.
The account has since been reinstated.
During Li’s tenure at Google, she helped set up a new AI research body, in collaboration with Beijing’s Tsinghua University. The latter is an institution known to have received massive funding from the Chinese military on projects to advance their AI capabilities.
Li was also a guest at two China Overseas Talent Exchange Conferences. The first was in Guangzhou in 2017 and the second was in Beijing in 2018. Both conferences were hosted by the European and American Alumni Associated with the backing of the CCP’s United Work Front Department (UWFD).
According to a 2018 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), the UWFD works to “co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the policies and authority of its ruling Chinese Communist Party.” Its primary focus is “the management of potential opposition groups inside China, but it also has an important foreign influence mission.”
“To carry out its influence activities abroad,” the USCC report explained, “the UFWD directs ‘overseas Chinese work,’ which seeks to co-opt ethnic Chinese individuals and communities living outside China, while a number of other key affiliated organizations guided by China’s broader United Front strategy conduct influence operations targeting foreign actors and states.”
In addition, Li is also tied to mobile technology and communications developer Future Forum, a Beijing-based agency backed by both the Chinese government and the China Association for Science and Technology. The latter describes itself as “a bridge” that links the [CCP] and the Chinese government to the country’s science and technology community.”
As Radio Free Asia notes, Future Forum is linked with a number of big names in China’s tech community. This includes NetEase founder Ding Lei and Baidu founder Li Yanhong. It also includes the sons of a number of party heads, including Zhu Yulai, son of former premier Zhu Rongji, and Liu Lefei, son of former Politburo member Liu Yunshan.
The appointment of a board member with ties to China is interesting when considering the fact that Twitter itself is banned in China. Despite the ban, a number of CCP offices and even China’s state-owned media have accounts on the platform.
Using these accounts, Beijing has been trying its best to spread its own propaganda to the West. The current Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak provides the most recent examples of this.
On May 5, Foreign Ministry Information Department of China director Hua Chunying tweeted an article from Xinhua News denying that Wuhan was the source of the coronavirus. The state-run news outlet, which has its own presence on Twitter, more recently tweeted about an article it ran that that claimed that overseas observers were impressed by a Chinese white paper on COVID-19. (Related: Twitter fact checks President Trump - but not Communist China.)
Beyond official accounts, China is also believed to have deployed hundreds of thousands of spam accounts who do nothing but repost messages from China’s own envoys and state-run news outlets.
So far, Twitter seems to be doing its best to deal with these accounts -- it recently suspended over 170,000 of them. However, Li’s own links to Beijing, combined with the suspension of accounts exposing these, put the platform’s ability to resist Chinese influence in doubt.