Zuckerberg even asked Xi to name his child.

Photographer: Pool/Getty Images

Does China Need Facebook?

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Mark Zuckerberg is relentless in his campaign to charm China. In the last year, he’s asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to bestow an honorary Chinese name on his unborn daughter (Xi turned down the request); told China’s chief censor that he’s not only reading Xi’s latest book of speeches, but handing it out to friends and colleagues; and most impressively, delivered a 20-minute speech in Mandarin at elite Tsinghua University over the weekend. Zuckerberg hasn’t spelled out his reasons, but they’re pretty easy to deduce. China, home to the world’s largest number of Internet users, has blocked out Facebook since 2009. If Zuckerberg is going to succeed in his mission to “connect the world,” he needs to find a way back in.

Actually, that might be the easy part. If Zuckerberg is willing to play by the Chinese regime’s rules, adhering to strict censorship guidelines among other things, doors will eventually open. The tougher question is whether Chinese Internet users are interested in what Zuckerberg and Facebook have to sell. At the moment, there’s little reason to believe they are.

Facebook’s problems in China date back almost to its birth. In 2008, the company launched a mainland China version of the site that by the following spring had amassed only around 285,000 users -- a trifling number in a country that even then boasted almost 300 million Internet users. The problems were several. Established instant-messaging services (especially QQ) had grown into their own social networks, presenting stiff competition. Chinese strongly prefer to be anonymous in public forums, something that Facebook’s architecture doesn’t provide. And Facebook was largely seen as a foreign import -- useful primarily to the few Chinese who had spent time abroad and acquired friends and contacts there.

The question of whether Facebook could grow that user base was rendered moot in July 2009, when the Chinese government blocked the site, claiming that it had played a key role in enabling separatist riots in China’s Xinjiang province. Today, a small Chinese user base remains, but it’s largely an elite, overseas-educated cohort adept at using virtual private networks and other means to circumvent China’s strict Internet controls. While Facebook doesn’t release user numbers for China, an influential tech blog posited in 2011 that there were 694,000 Chinese using the network.

Could Facebook compete better today? In a way, it’s already trying. WhatsApp, the world’s leading mobile-messaging service, which Facebook purchased for $19 billion in February 2014, can be freely downloaded and used in China. But it has few users. That’s not surprising: As Foreign Policy noted last year, the service is vastly inferior to WeChat, China’s leading mobile-messaging and social-networking app. On WeChat, users can shop, take out loans, hail taxis, buy movie tickets, play games and communicate with friends. On WhatsApp, they can … communicate with friends.

Facebook’s Messenger -- still banned in China -- allows for some additional functionality (including peer-to-peer payments). Feature-wise, though, it’s still a shadow of WeChat. The gap is wide enough that on Oct. 8, Facebook's head of messaging products acknowledged that the company still lags WeChat and other Asian messaging services such as Japan’s Line. 

If Facebook has any significant advantage over its Chinese competition, it’s that its content isn’t censored. But as Chinese officials have made abundantly clear in recent years, if Facebook wants a presence in China, that’s going to have to change. LinkedIn, which began operating a Chinese-language site in 2014, has shown the way by actively deleting content that Chinese authorities view as politically sensitive.

That’s less of a problem for LinkedIn, however, since its core business involves connecting a global network of professionals and employers (something that no Chinese company can hope to replicate). If Chinese are offended by its approach to free expression, they still have other reasons to use the service -- and no viable local alternatives. The same can’t be said for a censored Facebook, which would offer little that can’t be found on China’s other social networks.

For the moment, Facebook might want to consider reining in its ambitions for China and focus instead on bringing some of WeChat’s social-networking features to markets that Facebook already dominates. That would not only serve to increase the loyalty of its current customer base but might eventually generate the kind of innovations to which Chinese Netizens have grown accustomed. If and when Facebook does ever enter China, it’ll need them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net