Mark Zuckerberg visited China again. In terms of publicity, I think Mark Zuckerberg really enjoyed his weekend in Beijing. Mr. Zuckerberg spoke with Jack Ma of Alibaba, climbed the Great Wall, and met with the propaganda chief of China. But the highlight of the trip was a picture he posted on Facebook: Mr. Zuckerberg was jogging around the Tiananmen Square of Beijing.
But ironically, Mr. Zuckerberg might have a hard time logging on the website he founded, unless through a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. Since 2009, Facebook has been blocked in China for around 7 years. Philosophically, this is not acceptable for Mark Zuckerberg, since his ultimate goal is “making the world more open and connected”. From a business perspective, Facebook loses more than 1.4 billion potential users, which consist of 1/5 of the total population on the earth. However, franking speaking, Mark Zuckerberg is doing his best to seek access to Facebook in China.
In 2015, when China’s Internet Chief, Wei Lu, visited Facebook’s headquarter, Mr. Zuckerberg told this powerful Chinese official that he was reading a book called The Governance of China, written by Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Also in 2015, when Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the United States, Mark Zuckerberg politely asked Mr. Xi to name for his future daughter. However, this proposal was rejected by Mr. Xi since naming a kid would “bear a huge responsibility”.
Even as Mr. Zuckerberg was making a speech, he wouldn’t forget courting China. In his speech at Tsinghua University in Beijing, he filled his remarks with compliments on the nation’s history and with idioms of traditional Chinese wisdom. Speaking in Mandarin Chinese, Mr. Zuckerberg stated that “there is a good Chinese saying, which says that if you work at it hard enough, you can grind an iron bar into a needle,” he said. “If you keep working hard, you will change the world.”
But despite of his hard work, there is still not a clear timeline of when Facebook can be accessible in China. Politically, Facebook is a threat to Chinese government. Ever since 2009 race riots in Xinjiang Province, Facebook is banned in China unless through a cumbersome and often expensive workaround called a virtual private network, or VPN. The Chinese government is allergic to any digital technology that could be used to organize the masses outside of the authorities’ purview. Websites or keywords deemed politically sensitive are censored. YouTube, Google and Twitter are blocked by the Great Firewall.
From a business perspective, the Chinese government prefers seeing local technology companies, instead of western ones, thrive in China. Domestic alternatives, including Tencent’s WeChat, Sina’s Weibo and Baidu Tieba are gaining increasing popularity. These Chinese technology giants, though popular among the nation’s nearly 670 million digital population, are willing to be under constant monitoring and censorship. On the other hand, the development of such local firms is crucial to China’s great efforts to encourage innovation. With China’s export-led growth slowing down, its central strategists want to shift the economy up the value-adding ladder. For example, when the Chinese government tends to reinforce its Internet Plus strategy, its Internet policy is designed to incubate homegrown firms like Tecent and Baidu while discourage reliance on foreign companies such as Google and Facebook.
But can we say that there is absolutely no chance for Facebook to enter China? Probably not. Over the past few years, some other American technology companies have offered examples to Facebook in terms of how to deal with the Chinese government. LinkedIn, the professional social network, is allowed to provide service in China by working with two politically-connected Chinese venture capital firms and censoring sensitive content on its China network. Uber, which has experienced huge growth in China during the past two years, has moved quickly to ensure that all its customer data is stored within China to comply with regulations there.
The problem is whether Mr. Zuckerberg is willing to accept a version of the social-media service that submits to local censorship rules? For an idealist like Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps no Facebook at all is still better than the censored “Facebook Lite”. Another problem is does it worth Facebook to enter China under such huge political and business risks? Maybe Facebook has overrated its popularity in China. It’s hard to see how Facebook could achieve a meaningful market share as a new entrant in China’s social media market, given the dominance of existing players like Tencent, Baidu and Sina, let alone regulatory issues.
Until now, Facebook still has a long way to go.