By Daniel Goode
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is hopeful that China will be the next social network hub aside from being just a nice place to do business. He remarked last October on how one can’t possibly connect the whole world if he leaves out a billion people.
This is the reason of his recent visit to China this week, following a not so good previous week, when China banned pictures of empty chairs as they were considered symbolic to represent activist Liu Xiaobo during the Nobel peace prize award ceremony in Oslo. Liu has been imprisoned in China for “inciting subversion of state power.”
In order to repress talk about “empty chairs,” NetEase users, Chinese Twitter equivalent, were reviewed; the same thing the Facebook counterpart — Renren’s 150 million users, were hushed. It is a complete reminder for users to be careful in their postings of seemingly innocent content but interpreted as “subversive” or “critical” and banned by Chinese authorities.
Zuckerberg, newly named Time’s Person of the Year, has made no bones about wanting to woo 500 million Internet users – almost half of China’s population. At present, Facebook is mainly catering to a couple of million Chinese-language users – majority based in the U.S. or U.K. Last year, Facebook did not make it to the country’s top 10 largest social networks.
Robin Li, founder of the search engine Baidu, Google’s biggest rival, would be the best to answer Zuckerberg on issue whether it would be worth persuading China, amid state-audited, censored and licensed social network media. Of which, he would be referred back to Li’s private offer to Google chairman Eric Schmidt saying that market conditions change every day. Keeping at a distance would make it difficult to sustain.
Last March, Google effectively closed down its operations in China, of having difficulty to cope with government censors – an action that Li considered as both predictable and favorable to Baidu. Li advised to be a little bit patient, don’t complain and one should find a way around the problem.
It is now a question whether Zuckerberg could penetrate Beijing and be able to deal with a government committed to its only aim, its own preservation. Or a question on how he could handle censorship, and its significant effect to the social networking business.
In China, web politicization starts at the top, with arguments between state and private internet companies roaming around political issues and not on technology. A matter that even Mark Zuckerberg’s Time magazine award will be of great help.