Facebook in China: Connecting with 1bn people – and the censors
Posted by Author on December 20, 2010
Social network chief Mark Zuckerberg photographed meeting boss of Chinese search engine Baidu in Beijing
Mark Zuckerberg thinks that China is not just a place where it would be nice to do business; it’s where the social network’s future must inevitably be found. “How can you connect the whole world if you leave out a billion people?” he asked in October.
And so he began his first visit to the country this week. Just as well it wasn’t a week ago, when China banned pictures of empty chairs as they were considered symbolic of those designated to activist Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel peace prize award ceremony in Oslo. Liu has been jailed in China for “inciting subversion of state power”.
Thus Chinese users of the Twitter equivalent, NetEase, found the site “audited” to stifle talk about “empty chairs”, while the 150 million users of the country’s Facebook equivalent, Renren, were also muzzled. It is a stark reminder of the way in which seemingly innocent content is interpreted as “critical” or “subversive” and banned by censors there.
Fresh from being anointed Time’s Person of the Year, Zuckerberg has made no bones about wanting to woo China, and its 500m internet population – almost half its population. At present his creation has only a couple of million Chinese-language users – mainly based outside China – far from its dominance in countries such as the US and UK. Facebook last year was not in the top 10 biggest social networks in the country.
So how can Facebook thrive? Robin Li (pictured), the man who founded the Baidu search engine which outperforms Google in China, was Zuckerberg’s first point of call. One of the questions he might have asked Li in Beijing is whether wooing China’s internet users is worth it. Is the commercial prospect of serving the world’s fastest growing internet market attractive enough to run a state-audited, censored and licensed social network? At this point, Li might refer the billionaire Harvard dropout to the advice he privately offered Google chairman Eric Schmidt when his company was preparing to move east. “Market conditions change every day,” he warned. “If you are not close, it is difficult for you to keep up.”
Google effectively shut down its Chinese operation in March, saying it would no longer bow to government censors – a move Li referred to as both predictable and a gift to Baidu. “You need to be a little bit patient,” he advised. “Don’t complain. Find a way around the problem.”
Could Zuckerberg really uproot himself to Beijing, and change his determined approach to problems to cope with a government committed to one aim, its own preservation? Would he find censorship tolerable or just a cost of doing business? Is Facebook a force for socially-organised good, or is it just at the beck and call of government censors? And should it matter either way?
In China, politicisation of the web begins right at the top. Disputes between state and private internet companies are not over technology, they are entirely political – as are their solutions. That’s not something that a Time magazine award will help with. And no one has so far mistaken Mark Zuckerberg for an international diplomat.
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