“It’s great to be back in Beijing!” wrote Mark Zuckerberg in a Facebook post on Friday. “I kicked off my visit with a run through Tiananmen Square, past the Forbidden City and over to the Temple of Heaven.”
This marks the latest in a series of attempts by the chairman and chief executive of Facebook to win the hearts and minds of Chinese and maybe, just maybe, charm his way back into the single largest social media market on the planet.
1.59 billion people, over 70 percent of online adults, use Facebook. There are 700 million Internet users in China, which means if Facebook gains entry, and 70 percent of Chinese netizens sign up, over 90 percent of people online will be members. And sweetening the deal is the fact that China’s cut of the pie keeps growing; when Facebook was founded in 2004, 7.3 percent of Chinese were online, but today, over half the country surfs the web.
Zuckerberg has therefore been working hard to court Beijing’s favor, but with little success. In November 2011, he said he’d begun Mandarin lessons to please his girlfriend’s grandmother, who only speaks Chinese, adding that while he was a slow speaker, his tones were correct. But it seems he overstated his abilities, because several public displays of his facility with the language, including a 22-minute conversation at Tsinghua University in 2014, have elicited amusement.
“So how good was Zuckerberg’s Chinese?” asked The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore, following the Tsinghua talk. “It was good enough to wow the world, but in truth, four years of studying has brought him only to base camp.”
In October 2015, he spoke at Tsinghua University once more, again in Mandarin, and again, laughter ensued. One Sina Weibo user remarked, “Thank God I’m bilingual, so when I failed to understand his Chinese I could read the English subtitles!”
But Zuckerberg is nothing if not dauntless. Last month, he released a video featuring himself, his wife Priscilla (née Chen) and their baby daughter Maxima, whose Chinese name is Chen Mingyu.
“Happy Lunar New Year,” he said—in Mandarin, of course.
It’s certainly been an interesting process to watch, and he is improving, but it’s highly questionable whether tactics such as these, which one could even call gimmicks, will ever really work. And to think it all started because a man named Zhu couldn’t get a job.
In June 2009, Zhu was turned down when applying for work at the Xuri Toy Factory in Shaoguan, in China’s southeastern Guangdong province. He lashed out by starting a rumor that several Uyghurs, who worked at the factory, had raped an ethnic Han woman. This sparked riots, which were put down by local police, and that, in turn, sparked the massive July 2009 Ürümqi riots. Because rioters had used Facebook to organize, Beijing then banned Facebook from China.
Given that Beijing views Facebook a potential threat to national security, it’s hard to imagine how the government might do an about-face simply because Zuckerberg can somewhat speak Chinese, or because he flaunts his ignorance of Chinese society with a jaunty run through Tiananmen on a day when many locals would think twice about even stepping outside.
Indeed, netizens were grossly unimpressed. They chided him for ignoring the history of the site, for illegally using Facebook to make his post, for ignoring the smog, and for playing up to an oppressive regime. One commenter, Cindy Acevedo, wrote: “Mark goes to Beijing. Mark decides to go running. Mark doesn’t wear a mask while running. Mark comes back to U.S. with lung cancer. Don’t be like Mark. Wear your freaking mask.”
Still and all, as Zuckerberg’s Chinese improves, so will his efforts to win over the affections of the public. Many Chinese already like him, in fact, and admire him as an icon of the business world. Whether the public’s perception will have an impact on the state’s ruling, however, is another question.