Facebook and China certainly have an interesting relationship. After releasing a Chinese-language version of the platform in 2008, Facebook was banned by the Chinese government the very next year — in large part due to its role as a communication tool for anti-government protests. In its’ absence, homegrown platforms like Sina Weibo and WeChat have dominated the space. WeChat in particular has been hailed as the “one app to rule them all“, essentially combining the best features of Facebook, Twitter, Venmo, Yelp, Uber, and more, all into one app — and boasting more than 700 million active users to boot.
Is there any hope left for Facebook in China? Even tech giants like Google and Uber have failed to make a significant mark on the country — often losing out to their Chinese counterparts. In 2010, Google pulled out of China after years of offering a censored Google.cn to the Chinese market. Despite tremendous financial efforts to improve search results and provide a more reliable service over the years, Google was never able to capture the majority of Chinese users, 64% of which belonged to competitor, Baidu. Not only did Baidu have superior search technology, the company tailored its search engine specifically for its Chinese audience, additionally offering a wide variety of unique services and features.
Uber similarly faced significant hurdles in China. Initially, the company enjoyed early success, especially among foreigners and tourists living or visiting in China. However, in 2015, Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache, two Chinese Uber competitors, merged together to form Didi Chuxing. In addition, Didi Chuxing is backed by three of the largest Chinese tech giants, Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent — the developer of WeChat no less. Faced with intense pressure from the local company, Uber China eventually conceded and was sold to Didi Chuxing in 2015.
Robert Salomon writes that it is difficult for these Western companies to enter the Chinese market because
China’s infrastructure, financial markets, and banking system are underdeveloped relative to those in the West, making it difficult for Western firms to operate in China as they do at home. Western managers find China’s political structure, legal system, and regulatory rules complex and vexing. Also, the Chinese practice of intermingling personal and business relationships is foreign to U.S. companies accustomed to more transactional relationships with their customers and employees. Finally, Chinese consumer tastes are so different from Westerners’ that foreign companies find it challenging to adapt their products and services to meet the specific needs of Chinese customers.
With the exception of Apple, western companies have a seemingly dismal track record in China. So why is Facebook considering entry in the Chinese arena once more? Mark Zuckerberg has certainly made it clear that he has his eyes set on China. Aside from learning Mandarin, visiting the country multiple times, and meeting with top Internet leaders, Zuckerberg himself said that “you can’t have a mission to want to connect everyone in the world and leave out the biggest country“. While it is unlikely that Facebook will overthrow WeChat, capturing even a small fraction of China’s massive Internet population will bring in massive amounts of revenue for the company. Such untapped potential presents itself as a tempting opportunity for Facebook to reach even newer heights. But at what cost?
The New York Times reported that “the social network has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former employees”. China is notorious for it’s Great Firewall that blocks access to many foreign sites, filters out certain keywords, and criminalizes certain online speech and activities — often deemed as anti-communist. The reported censorship tool would allow a third party Chinese company to censor any content they deem inappropriate on the site.
Though Chinese companies have been able to advertise on Facebook, even through the site’s ban, the introduction of a censorship tool is a certainly gray area. Other companies, like LinkedIn, have complied with China’s censorship laws, and the results have led to great success in which “LinkedIn has grown its China membership base by over fivefold to 20 million members”. However, with strong competitors in both Weibo and WeChat, many argue that Facebook would be irrelevant to Chinese users outside of those who are looking to stay connected with friends and family overseas. Thus the question remains, is it worth it for Facebook to comply to censorship rules in order to enter the Chinese market? Keep a lookout on your news feeds for any updates in the near future, hopefully it’s not fake.