Friday 30 September 2016

Facebook in China: Forget it, Mark, you're not going to get a Like from the leaders

Published 24/03/2016 | 02:30

A computer screen showing Mark Zuckerberg's 'smog jog' through Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital
A computer screen showing Mark Zuckerberg's 'smog jog' through Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital

Mark Zuckerberg went to China, and he went jogging. In Tiananmen Square. He posted his experience on Facebook. From China, where Facebook is banned.

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His post got at least 300,000 `likes,' many of which were from Chinese citizens on the mainland who aren't supposed to have access to the social networking site.

We all see the multiple layers of irony here.

A day later, Zuckerberg sat down with China's propaganda chief, according to an account posted, with no irony whatsoever, to the Twitter and Facebook accounts of China's official People's Daily.

Pared back, it's not irony we're looking at, but strategy.

While Facebook's one billion daily users are impressive for any internet outfit, growth is slowing and Zuckerberg needs to turn that around. China, the world's second-biggest economy, has 688 million internet users.

If even the remotest chance of getting close to those users means Zuckerberg has to go for a smog jog in Beijing, or get close to the man whose job it is to oversee China's Central Commission for Guiding Ethical and Cultural Progress, then that's what must be done.

Zuckerberg's interest in China isn't new, or superficial.

The time he's spent learning Mandarin and talking directly with the Chinese people makes him one of the most engaged Western CEOs to visit the nation.

None of that, however, is going to change the simple fact that China is not for Facebook, and Facebook is not for China.

Liu Yunshan, director of the aforementioned cultural body, expressed hope Saturday that Facebook, which he said has advanced technology and governance, should work with Chinese internet companies to enhance exchanges and share experiences, so as to benefit people from all countries.

Globally, the internet has, for the most part, been built in the US's image. Freedom of speech is the backbone of cyberspace. That it is uncensored is what makes it so useful and so popular.

The internet China has built is, according to Liu, one of "governance with Chinese characteristics".

It being censored and not free hasn't hampered its uptake, not even on social media where WeChat - a hybrid of WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter - has grown to 700 million users from zero in five years.

From the outside, WeChat's success looks like an opportunity for Facebook. But inside China, it's Facebook's very status as being beyond the firewall that gives it its cachet.

China already has a solid social media sector that works in awkward symbiosis with government censors. Netizens use virtual private networks to skirt the firewall so they can access Facebook, engage with people overseas and get some fresh air. If Zuckerberg were to set up a China-specific version of Facebook that conforms to the censorship, it would become no different to what's currently on offer. And China doesn't need any more smog. (Bloomberg)

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