There’s no mistaking Facebook’s designs on China.
So when the world’s biggest social media network so much as stirs in the direction of the world’s largest internet market, people ascribe all sorts of meaning to its body language.
Facebook is still not allowed in the mainland — and probably not for a while yet — but for all intents and purposes, it’s in China.
It has thousands of engineers there and this year, it signed a three-year lease on 8,600 square feet of space in Fortune Financial Center in Beijing’s central business district.
So what to make of Facebook’s reported integration with Weibo, the Chinese instant messaging service?
Not much, if you look at what it actually is. It simply means that users outside China can log into their Weibo accounts on Facebook.
But Facebook can also build a following among Weibo account holders. In fact, 130,000 Weibo users are now following Facebook.
Small, incremental steps could be in the plan for the social media giant, whose 1.3 billion-strong user base is a shade more, or less, than China’s population.
But it’s the mainland’s 300 million-plus internet users Facebook is most interested in.
The challenge is to get a foot in the door because this hidden jewel of advertising revenue is kept from the outside world by the Great China Firewall.
The reason is not commercial or economic but political.
China considers any form of foreign influence a potential threat to social harmony which, in the larger context, means it’s a threat to the Communist Party.
Which is why Google, Facebook and Twitter are not about to be embraced by the mainland, even though Chinese netizens are itching to get their hands on them.
Google left China after authorities blocked certain sensitive searches. Facebook and Twitter are not welcome because of their role in spreading upheavals from Iran to Egypt and some other capitals in the Middle East.
Facebook or Twitter, conceivably could tone down the political fervor on its message board by filtering out sensitive information. LinkedIn, the professional-based social network, reportedly did some such deal with the Chinese authorities.
The commercial incentive isn’t lacking.
According to iResearch, a marketing research company, China’s online advertising revenue climbed to 38.51 billion yuan (US$6.267 billion) in the second quarter this year, up 29.2 percent from the first quarter. The figure is expected to increase 48.7 percent for the whole of this year.
In exchange for such a tantalizing prospect, will Facebook bite the bullet?
It’s hard to imagine Facebook not doing what it takes to grab a slice of the Chinese market but it’s harder to see the company gambling away what it already has for something with an uncertain outcome.
Whether or not it gets China, Facebook will continue to mine the advertising market with new offerings and related acquisitions. It’s still growing and is in no immediate danger of being taken down by a rival.
And the world is not China. Much of the rest of it is open for business.
Still, China is a dilemma that will continue to haunt Facebook for a long time to come.
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