Column: Why Zuckerberg's pursuit of a China market is like a bad rom-com

In this March 19, 2016 photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, Liu Yunshan, right, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee meets with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Beijing, the capital of China. Facebook founder Zuckerberg held a rare meeting with China's propaganda chief Liu at a time when Chinese authorities are tightening control over their cyberspace. (Wang Ye/Xinhua News Agency via AP)

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s courtship of China is years in the making, yet reflects the progress of a severely unsuccessful rom-com.

Zuckerberg met with China’s propaganda chief to discuss the future of Facebook within the restrictive country amid a crackdown by Beijing authorities, according to The New York Times.

Currently, Facebook is a social media platform for 1.59 billion people. Over 70 percent of adults online use it. However, there are 700 million internet users in China, according to Forbes, creating a massive untapped market for Zuckerberg. When Facebook was founded in 2004, 7.3 percent of Chinese were online, but now over half the country has access to the internet. However, the Great Firewall has prevented Chinese citizens from accessing Facebook since 2009.

Dreaming of a day when Facebook would be accessible to these people, Zuckerberg has since made unsubstantial attempts such as starting Mandarin lessons in Nov. 2011 to please his girlfriend. He publicly lauded his own progress by stating that though he was a slow speaker, his tones were correct. However, a 22-minute speech at Tsinghua University in 2014 elicited laughter and sympathetic accolades, given the difficulty of the language.

However, persistence is fundamental to any courtship, as Zuckerberg returned to the University again in 2015 to, once more, speak in Mandarin. Once again, his risible speech was met with gratitude for English subtitles by Chinese citizens, according to the LA Times. Despite this, he still released a video of himself, his wife and their daughter while speaking Mandarin and talking about the Lunar New Year. At this point, Zuckerberg proved to be dauntless in the face of ridicule and as a result, the internet community has lost all interest in his progress with learning Mandarin.

While these attempts to entice China may be good-humored and harmless, his current meeting with the chief of propaganda proves to hold a grimmer tone with regards to the consequences of his actions and his loyalty of his principles that helped create Facebook. He has received remonstration for his illegal use of Facebook during his visit, ignoring smog, playing up to an oppressive regime and seemingly ignoring the history after a lively run through Tiananmen Square, according to The New York Times.

To Zuckerberg, China represents untapped market potential, but little else. His blatant disregard for its history and the restrictive nature of the government deviates from the principles of social media to be used as a platform and an essential in freedom of speech. Facebook has seen a rise in social activism with videos from accounts like NowThis and AJ+. These organizations actively engage Facebook users in current events and social activism through an interactive social media platform, using short multimedia videos to give engaging summaries of contemporary issues.

Meanwhile, the history of China’s politics is rooted in preventing Xinjiang independence activists from organizing, the same reason why Google left China as many Gmail accounts of human rights activists kept being hacked, according to Tech in Asia. Zuckerberg faces formidable opposition amongst China’s political leaders with absolutely no chance of bringing an uncensored version of Facebook into this country. By pursuing this option, his principles can be brought into question, as his actions seem to mirror those of a sympathizer of one of the most censored communist regimes in the world. Without taking a critical stance against China’s politics and urging his staff to become familiar with Xi Jinping’s ideology to become more familiar with “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” per the Washington Post, Zuckerberg attempts to forge an alliance with an entity that could prove to be dangerous to his company and the ideals it once stood for.

While CEOs are under no obligation to be political activists, they need to stay true to the brand of what they are marketing. Facebook’s premise is based on freedom of speech and publicly expressing opinions on a platform that encourages and fosters global connectivity. By engaging in diplomatic relations with a country that actively whitewashes over the human rights violations by the administration and mislead the citizens of said country, Zuckerberg is devaluing his own company. If he chooses to further create a constrained version of Facebook specifically tailored to China, he’s further deviating from the original intent of the site and taking a political stance in support of the country’s policies.  


Jesseba Fernando is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at jesseba.fernando@uconn.edu.