Mark Zuckerberg’s Beijing publicity stunt was as craven as it was brilliant. There he was, the Facebook founder and his entourage, jogging through smoggy Tiananmen Square not wearing a facemask — something promotionally minded runners wouldn’t dream of leaving home without.
The message from Zuckerberg’s gesture, and his meeting with Beijing’s propaganda minister, was impossible to miss: We at Facebook are so anxious to “friend” China that we’re willing to depart from the normative behavior we exercise everywhere else. His chat with President Xi Jinping’s spin master (something Silicon Valley types don’t do) has tech-world tongues wagging about the biggest social network entering the most populous nation. Here’s my message to Zuckerberg: don’t do it, at least not now.
The only way Facebook operates in Xi’s China is as a pawn in his censorship push. China’s 1.4 billion people, remember, are becoming less free with each passing year under Xi, a leader who’s barely gotten started. His reign won’t end until 2023 and his obsession with stifling dissent, controlling the narrative and discrediting detractors means Facebook would operate as a de facto extension of Xi’s government.
Zuckerberg’s China ambitions are a no-brainer. As new user signups in the West slow and competitors like Snapchat encroach, Facebook shareholders are clamoring to tap China’s nearly 700 million Internet users. Opportunities abound for new caches of user data, advertising and publishing. Blocked in the Middle Kingdom since 2009, Zuckerberg is increasingly cozying up to Xi’s men and honing Facebook’s soft power — speeches in his novice Mandarin, public forums with Alibaba’s Jack Ma and running unprotected in Beijing. But at what cost to China’s development and humankind?
As I’ve argued before, China needs Zuckerberg’s blue and white pages and “like” buttons more than his company needs the No. 2 economy. It’s impossible for China to become an innovative powerhouse when its best minds are excluded from the mediums entrepreneurs everywhere else use to share notes, debate and test ideas. Social media platforms are where these conversations rage and crowdsourcing that drives change, sparks new industries and speaks truth to power thrives.
Facebook’s knack for monetizing the thoughts, deeds and aspirations of users means it can prosper without China. It’s less clear what the Chinese people get out of Zuckerberg helping Xi provide alternative informational universes.
Beijing’s constraints on overseas tech companies are growing at a time when its Great Firewall of Censorship is expanding. Along with journalists, financial analysts critical of Xi’s government are being silenced. Tolerance for VPNs (virtual private networks) that once allowed netizens access to some social media offerings is disappearing. A mainland Facebook, let’s face it, would be Facebook lite that adheres to Xi’s informational proclivities.
It’s reasonable to expect, for example, that Facebook would need to partner with a local tech operation. Here, think LinkedIn entering China with the help of two joint ventures or Japanese messaging service Line connecting via Qihoo 360. Beijing is sure to demand client data be housed in China to allow ready government access. Also, Facebook would probably need to help Beijing delete posts it finds even remotely objectionable. Good luck, for example, enjoying the usual Facebook barrage of birthday greetings if you were born on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Singer Taylor Swift walked into a political maelstrom when she named an album “1989,” the year Tiananmen went down. China uses sophisticated algorithms to flag words, dates and public figures it finds threatening to the state.
Chinese messaging apps like WeChat and the Twitter-esque Sina Weibo are policed aggressively, but they’re largely domestic and Mandarin-based. Facebook would be quite the wildcard as it connects mainlanders to more than 100 foreign tongues around the globe with its group pages. That’s why Facebook with Chinese characteristics would be so detrimental to the mainland’s development. It would give Xi a public relations coup as it creates the illusion of a more transparent and global nation. But really, it would just be another tool for Xi to tighten the censorship screws. The Internet, remember, didn’t change China — China bent cyberspace to its will.
Granted, it’s been a bad couple of months for Facebook’s Asia push. In February, India rejected its “Free Basics” Internet platform. Board member Marc Andreessen angered a nation of 1.2 billion when he tweeted: “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”
Zuckerberg promptly apologized. But the costs of opening a localized, Xi-enabling Facebook would be no less craven than Western news organizations who kowtow to Beijing, while claiming they don’t.
Respect to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page for doing the right thing here. In 2010, they decided — despite howls of protests from shareholders — that if they can’t operate their search engine according to their own principles, they won’t play in China. Will Zuckerberg play into Xi’s hand? While it’s an open question, it’s worth considering what their jobs share in common.
Xi, after all, is the supreme leader of the biggest consumer market, while Zuckerberg runs the biggest online meeting place. Both oversee billion-plus populations willingly giving up more and more of their privacy. Xi probably eyes Zuckerberg as the ideal foil for his designs on having his way with cyberspace; Zuckerberg may think the same of Xi.
Like many, I look forward to the day Facebook operates in China. But Zuckerberg must do it the right way. And Xi’s way, coming now, would not be that.
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com
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