Mark Zuckerberg – chairman, chief executive and co-founder of the social networking website, Facebook – is a 31-year-old young man worth $46 billion, and he is fixed on one idea: he wants to conquer China. He’s in good company. Pope Francis, like two popes before him, wants to do the same. Francis is doing it through secret negotiations. But while the Vatican is hoping to save and conquer a few million Chinese souls, Zuckerberg wants them all. That means 668 million internet users who are presently accounted for in China. This is the entire urban population, or half of the inhabitants of the communist country.
As a matter of fact, Zuckerberg wants more. If you look at his Facebook cover photo, you will see him standing in front a map of the globe, with already-conquered areas lit up on the blue map. China is a black spot on Zuckerberg’s map. There is not a single dot on the map of that gigantic, dark area. However, while Facebook may be able to financially make up for its lack of presence in China, its vision may remain unrealized. As the image on his Facebook page shows, Mark Zuckerberg wants to connect the world. But if Facebook hasn’t gotten to China, it hasn’t connected the world.
Facebook, like the Catholic Church 60 years earlier, was kicked out of China in 2009. One year later, Mark Zuckerberg started to learn Chinese, and in 2012, he married Priscilla Chan, his longtime Chinese girlfriend. Last December, they had a baby girl, whom they named Maxima Chan Zuckerberg, only to give her a proper Chinese name a few months later: Chen Mingyu (陈明宇). Chen is a traditional family name that, in the past, was probably transcribed as Chan; but the Zuckerbergs rewrote it according to the present, official transcription of modern Chinese, called Pinyin. The name means “bright universe.”
While mother Priscilla stayed at home nursing Bright Universe, the young father Zuckerberg went to China last week, where he jogged under Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square, risking his health in Beijing’s hazardous polluted air. By doing so, Zuckerberg risks becoming a model advocate for a regime that does almost nothing to improve a climate that suffocates its populus. As such, he is being targeted by the Chinese social media users whom he intends to conquer – if, of course, he ever gets the government’s permission to land Facebook in China. As the BBC reports:
Some users have been bolder in quipping about Mr Zuckerberg’s failed attempts to enter China, through arch wordplay.
“When I see Zuckerberg running in the haze, what do I think?” one user says. “Feisibuke”.
“Feisibuke” is the Chinese phonetic transcription for “Facebook”.
However, the characters it uses mean, “Doomed to die” and poke fun at Mr Zuckerberg’s obstinacy – not only jogging in the haze, but at persevering with his efforts to enter the Chinese market.
However, some are more critical about what they see as his blatant efforts to try to garner support in the market.
“He’s come to China to suck on the Chinese haze, but hasn’t thought of how to make money here,” says Siye Kaoya.
This is not how it started. In 2014, when Zuckerberg addressed students of the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing with “dajia hao,” his audience exploded with enthusiasm. It was because of this (“We are all good”) – and many other colloquial expressions that Zuckerberg used in his carefully prepared interview – that many Chinese showed enthusiasm for him and tolerated his otherwise poor control of pronunciation and intonation.
The strategy of Facebook’s chief executive is to charm China and to show that America’s otherwise aggressive capitalism can have a human face. Or, as the New York Times reported:
It followed previous trips in which Mr. Zuckerberg impressed Chinese audiences with his rookie Chinese language skills and spoke about his fascination with the country. Even at times while he was outside China, he metwith China’s president, Xi Jinping; told a Chinese official he was reading a book of Mr. Xi’s words and gave his newborn daughter, Max, a Chinese name. (It is Chen Mingyu.)
The visits have cemented his place as one of the best-known foreign business executives in China. Courting Chinese leaders in such a public fashion is an unusual strategy for a foreign executive. With star power comes influence, and any clout not directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party can be deemed dangerous. China demonstrated this last month, when a widely read social media account of a prominent real estate tycoon disappeared after he criticized Mr. Xi’s call for unswerving loyalty from the country’s media.
The few American technology firms that have entered China in recent years have played down their efforts. If Mr. Zuckerberg succeeds, it could show other foreign companies blocked in China that they have a potential path into the huge and fast-growing market — one that calls for them to accept China’s strict controls on discourse and to refrain from rocking the boat. A failure would underscore Chinese distrust of foreign technology companies and cement the idea that the low-profile approach is the only way to gain market access.
But the chances that this will happen are dim. Unless Facebook is ready to compromise with Chinese authorities, Facebook – like Google – can only become a torturously long story about which the books could be written. Just the other day Yahoo, one of the experienced internet giants that got burned in China, collaborated with Quartz to publish an analysis that lists the crucial compromises that Zuckerberg would have to accept before he could actually reopen the gate to China. “The only way Facebook enters China is as a tool of the government,” reads the headline of the article, written by Josh Horwitz. ”If Zuckerberg is lucky, authorities will permit a ‘localized’ version of Facebook, with censored content and perhaps limited overlap with the international version. Various laws and statements, like the China Cybersecurity Law or the recent set of rules from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, dictate broadly how foreign internet companies ought to operate in China.”
Among the rules Zuckerberg will undoubtedly have to accept is a partnership with a local Chinese internet company where it will have to store all the data regarding Chinese users and create the Great Firewall of Facebook. This would no longer be the authentic Facebook, but a parallel Chinese version of it, a social network that would allow the Chinese government to continue exercising control over its citizens. Will the young, rich Zuckerberg accept these rules? Will Facebook users in the West feel safe and trust that Facebook’s Chinese partners won’t have access to their data?
For many years, Microsoft was tempted to accept similar Chinese dictates. In 2007, David Kirkpatrick of Fortune Magazine described some of Microsoft’s early dilemmas about how to approach Chinese market, which was still in desperate need of software at the beginning of this century.
Microsoft bumbled for years after entering China in 1992, and its business was a disaster there for a decade. It finally figured out that almost none of the basic precepts that led to its success in the U.S. and Europe made sense in China. There Microsoft had to become the un-Microsoft – pricing at rock bottom instead of charging hundreds of dollars for its Windows operating system and Office applications; abandoning the centerpiece of its public-policy approach elsewhere, the protection of its intellectual property at all costs; and closely partnering with the government instead of fighting it as in the U.S., a stance that has opened the company to criticism from human rights groups.
“It took Microsoft 15 years and billions of dollars of lost revenue to learn how to do business in China,” says Sigurd Leung, who follows the company at research firm Analysys International in Beijing.
When Microsoft thought that it was finally in business, the government banned Windows in China simply because Microsoft stopped updating the widely used and pirated Windows XP. While Microsoft later stopped charging for Windows, and still continues to be the dominant operative system in China today, NeoKylin – the homegrown OS that the Chinese government hopes will one day replace Windows – has been launched.
Will this be Facebook’s destiny in China? How much is Zuckerberg ready to give up in order to gain access to a third of the world – a country whose present strongman, Xi Jinping, wants to stay isolated. Facebook offers nothing revolutionary to the world. There is almost no chance that introducing Facebook to China would change the Asian giant for better or worse. What is interesting is the anxiety of huge corporations and countries as they try to become even bigger. A fear created by a global economy that compels them to grab and expand more. An anxious greed.