Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

Mark Zuckerberg went to China, and he went jogging. In Tiananmen Square. He posted his experience on Facebook. From China, where Facebook is banned.

His post got at least 300,000 `likes,' many of which were from Chinese citizens on the mainland who aren't supposed to have access to the social networking site. We all see the multiple layers of irony here.

A day later, Zuckerberg sat down with China's propaganda chief, according to an account posted, with no irony whatsoever, to the Twitter and Facebook accounts of China's official People's Daily. Pared back, it's not irony we're looking at, but strategy.

While Facebook's 1 billion daily users are impressive for any Internet outfit, growth is slowing and Zuckerberg needs to turn that around. China, the world's second-biggest economy, sports 688 million Internet users.

Facebook No Friends
Growth in global usage has been flattening out
Source: Bloomberg data
Note: No growth data available for 2Q2012.

If even the remotest chance of getting close to those users means Zuckerberg has to go for a smog jog in Beijing, or get close to the man whose job it is to oversee China's Central Commission for Guiding Ethical and Cultural Progress, then that's what must be done.

Zuckerberg's interest in China isn't new, or superficial. The time he's spent learning Mandarin and talking directly with the Chinese people makes him one of the most-engaged Western CEOs to visit the nation.

None of that, however, is going to change the simple fact that China is not for Facebook, and Facebook is not for China.

Liu Yunshan, director of the aforementioned cultural body, expressed hope Saturday that Facebook, which he said has advanced technology and governance, should work with Chinese Internet companies to enhance exchanges and share experiences, so as to benefit people from all countries.

Globally, the Internet has, for the most part, been built in the U.S.'s image. Freedom of speech is the backbone of cyberspace. That it is uncensored is what makes it so useful and so popular.

The Internet China has built is, according to Liu, one of ``governance with Chinese characteristics.'' It being censored and not free hasn't hampered its uptake, not even on social media where WeChat -- a hybrid of WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter -- has grown to 700 million million users from zero in five years.

Social China
WeChat monthly active users have grown to 700 million in five years
Source: Tencent
Note: No data available for 3Q2012.

From the outside, WeChat's success looks like an opportunity for Facebook. But inside China, it's Facebook's very status as being beyond the firewall that gives it its kudos.

China already has a solid social media sector that works in awkward symbiosis with government censors. Netizens use virtual private networks to skirt the firewall so they can access Facebook, engage with people overseas and get some fresh air. If Zuckerberg were to set up a China-specific version of Facebook that conforms to the censorship, it would become no different to what's currently on offer. And China doesn't need any more smog.

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

  1. As a native English and fluent Mandarin speaker, this Gadfly can attest that Zuck's Mandarin is quite impressive, albeit far from perfect, and deserves no derision but lots of admiration. 

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net