In October, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the social networking site Facebook, wowed audiences in Beijing by speaking Mandarin during a question-and-answer session at Tsinghua University. This month, he met with China’s Internet tsar, Lu Wei, in California. A photograph of the meeting published by Chinese state media showed Zuckerberg had a copy of Xi Jinping’s latest book, The Governance of China, on his desk. According to Chinese media, Zuckerberg told Lu he distributed the book to colleagues to help them understand “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
It seems Zuckerberg is trying his best to convince Beijing that Facebook can be China-friendly. But what would that mean for the social media giant?
In October, when Lu Wei was asked why Facebook and certain other Western websites are blocked in China, he held firm to China’s position that it has every right to censor undesirable sites. “I have a choice in who gets to be a guest in my house,” Lu said, noting that Chinese “hospitality” to foreign firms had its limits. “I have no way to change you, but I have the power to choose my friends. I hope that all who come to China are friends, true friends,” Lu added.
At the same time, Lu clarified that he “did not say it [Facebook] could not enter China, nor did I say it could enter China.” The answer, Lu implied, is entirely up to Facebook – it the company is willing to play by China’s rules, it might be admitted to the Chinese market. But China’s rules include following censorship requests on issues China deems relevant to its national interests. LinkedIn, a U.S.-based business social networking firm, was recently criticized for doing just that – censoring posts related to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
That LinkedIn censored content posted by Americans on an American website demonstrates the fuzzy nature of Internet restrictions. On a global social networking site like LinkedIn or Facebook, it becomes nearly impossible to limit censorship and other restrictions to the Chinese audience. The Chinese government will also want to be able to control what is posted by foreign citizens living in China – and perhaps even what is posted by Chinese citizens elsewhere in the world. Complying with those restrictions may help Facebook enter China’s massive market, but it could also backfire by costing the social media network users elsewhere.
Zuckerberg has already come under fire for cozying up to the Chinese government in his meeting with Lu Wei. Chinese dissident Hu Jia told the Associated Press that “Mr. Zuckerberg is either ignorant of China’s politics or shameless.” Hu added, “I feel ashamed for Facebook and sorry for Mr. Zuckerberg. When you yield to the executioners of the Internet, they will only become more arrogant.”
There’s also the purely practical question of what Facebook can gain by entering China. China’s social media world is well-developed; Chinese consumers aren’t bemoaning the lack of access to Facebook but are instead enjoying Chinese alternatives like WeChat, Renren, and various microblog platforms. Even if it was unblocked tomorrow, Facebook would likely struggle to gain traction in an already crowded sector, particularly if government restrictions hamper a hypothetical China debut. For that reason, analysts interviewed by China Daily said Facebook would likely have to enter the China market as part of a joint venture with an already established Chinese social media company. Such a partnership would carry its own risks.
Despite these concerns, the potential of the vast Chinese markets (600 million Internet users and counting) may prove too attractive for Facebook executives to ignore. Even if Facebook never enters China’s social media market, it could potentially find a lucrative – and less controversial – niche in advertising for Chinese mobile apps, as Quartz notes.