What Facebook in China Would Mean for Foreign Brands

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From learning Mandarin and keeping Xi Jinping’s book handy at work to staging a photo op running through Beijing’s smog, Mark Zuckerberg has shown dogged determination to win over the hearts of China’s leaders as he strives to get Facebook unblocked in China.

According to a recent article in the MIT Technology Review, Facebook’s ability to launch in China “now looks probable” based on interviews with China tech watchers, who say that high-profile Chinese officials’ willingness to publicly meet with him is a key signal that he’s making progress.

While all of this is still speculation (and many experts have drastically different predictions), if Facebook were to launch in China after being blocked since 2009, the Chinese government has made clear that it would have to abide by China’s censorship rules. The deputy director of the Cyberspace Administration of China Ren Xianliang told reporters on October 11 that Facebook and Google would be allowed in if they “respect China’s laws,” which for other social networks has meant employing digital “nannies” to delete discussion of any topics banned by authorities and turning over users’ private information to the government when asked.

As a result, a Facebook re-entry into mainland China would almost certainly not simply mean unblocking what exists now. To get a better sense of what might happen in practice, we could look at LinkedIn, which is not blocked in China but actively censors sensitive material, emailing people who post it to tell them that certain posts will not be visible in mainland China. Meanwhile, in the case of WeChat’s international expansion, it doesn’t allow its Chinese users to see international official accounts.

It’s likely Facebook would have to do something similar by creating a separate Chinese site through a joint venture and/or blocking posts, which would be a branding disaster in the United States. Unlike LinkedIn, Facebook generally serves as a hotbed for political discussion across the world, meaning it would be under especially close scrutiny by authorities. It would also likely need to comply with government requests for users’ information along the lines of Yahoo, which in 2004 gave Chinese authorities the private emails of a Chinese journalist who was then imprisoned for sending foreign websites a directive against reporting on sensitive issues.

These developments are likely being watched very closely by foreign brands that sell in the China market and currently focus mainly on Weibo and WeChat for their social media marketing in the country. If Facebook were to take off in China, brands would need to consider investing in a separate Chinese-language account that might need to be registered through some sort of China-specific process, depending on how stringent the regulations are. If Facebook opts to create a China version with international accounts blocked in the vein of WeChat, brands may face a strict application process to create an official account.

This is assuming Facebook somehow catches on in mainland China enough to warrant spending a social media budget on it. It is true that some Chinese users have already created Facebook accounts through the use of a VPN, while the social network has managed to become especially successful in Hong Kong. But there are signs that it may not become an automatic social media juggernaut on the mainland, where mobile is the main way people access the internet. Renren, which has been considered to be the Chinese app most similar to Facebook, has been declining in popularity as the company moves into other business ventures such as online financing. While Facebook has been gravitating more in the direction of WeChat with its standalone messaging app, it would be extremely difficult to unseat Tencent’s behemoth in the mobile arena. Also at issue would be the negative publicity fallout that would ensue for the company abroad, which could quickly ensnare any brands that support a China-censored Facebook too enthusiastically.

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Social Media, Tech