19 October 2018
Despite Mark Zuckerberg's painstaking efforts to gain favor with China, there is still a long way to go before Beijing would fully open up its market to foreign companies such as Facebook. Photo:
Despite Mark Zuckerberg's painstaking efforts to gain favor with China, there is still a long way to go before Beijing would fully open up its market to foreign companies such as Facebook. Photo:

Bumpy ride ahead for Facebook in its bid for China market

On Oct. 30, leading heavyweights of the global tech sector such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook, Microsfot CEO Satya Nadella and SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son, as well as Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma Hua-teng, gathered in Beijing to attend a meeting of the advisory committee of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management.

After the meeting they were granted an audience with President Xi Jinping.

As expected, Mark Zuckerberg, who everybody knows has been aggressively eyeing China’s huge market, wasted no time ingratiating himself with President Xi at the meeting, during which he gave a speech in Mandarin praising China’s “startling economic development”.

He also quoted the phrase “do not forget the original aspiration” from the recent report of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and urged the international community to seek a better understanding of China. He then went on to say that our world would become a better place if billions of people across the globe are able to hear the voice of China.

Zuckerberg didn’t stop at paying compliments in his effort to please leaders in Beijing.

For example, in September this year, he appointed William Shuai, a former official of the National Development and Reform Commission under the State Council, to oversee Facebook’s relations with the Chinese authorities.

A few years ago, Zuckerberg went to great lengths to boost understanding of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” among his employees by buying hundreds of copies of the English edition of the book Xi Jinping On Governance And Administration published by the State Council and circulating them among his staff.

Unfortunately, despite Zuckerberg’s painstaking efforts to gain favor with Chinese officialdom, it appears there is still a long way to go before Beijing would fully open up its market to foreign tech companies such as Facebook, as the mainland authorities, which consider the cyberworld as an important domain of national security, have been substantially tightening their grip on the internet in recent years.

Worse still, thanks to Beijing’s escalating censorship, the internet in the mainland has been quickly turning into a gigantic “intranet” that is sealed off from the rest of the world, and mainland netizens have found it increasingly difficult to gain access to foreign websites.

Moreover, lots of so-called “cyberpolicemen” in the mainland are constantly keeping a close eye on the internet around the clock and constantly scanning for and reporting on any sensitive term and content that appear online. And their hypersensitive and intense surveillance activities are already disrupting the dissemination of “normal information”.

Recently, the National Meteorological Center of China (NMC) was forced to delete its “amber” typhoon signal and replace it with the English word “yellow” because the Chinese term “amber” is also a euphemism for “pornographic”.

And it just got worse. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has further tightened regulation of the internet by announcing new guidelines on the administrative method regarding internet domain names, under which all websites which are not registered in China will be banned, on the pretext of preventing public access to inappropriate and dangerous websites.

However, everybody knows the new guidelines are in fact aimed at tightening control of ideology in the cyberworld.

After the implementation of the new measures, all foreign website operators will have to relocate their web servers to China and place them under government regulation in order to gain permits from the mainland authorities.

The new law also requires that they must turn over any information about their clients and users on request, thereby further narrowing down the freedom of information in the cyberworld across the mainland.

Given Beijing’s toughened measures on cybersecurity, Facebook would be facing a moral dilemma between abiding by Beijing’s strict censorship rules and upholding freedom of information even if it was eventually granted entry into the mainland market, not to mention the challenges posed by formidable domestic competitors such as and Tencent.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 4

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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