There are strong rumours that Facebook may be about to make a dramatic return to China – the country where it was banned over seven years ago. If it happens, who benefits? Would it be another victory on the world stage for American technological supremacy? Or a propaganda win for Beijing? Ironically, those arguably least bothered about current machinations are the users themselves.
Facebook has been banned in China since 2009, when separatists in the western Xinjiang province used the platform to organise in defiance of Beijing. Its part in the so-called Arab Spring revolutions across the Middle East in 2011 only served to harden the resolve of the Communist Party. Banning the Silicon Valley giant was primarily a censorship play. But it had a very positive side effect for the Chinese government: allowing home-grown alternatives to spring up in its stead. This tactic also worked against the likes of Twitter and Google. Thus, Chinese firms like Alibaba, Tencent and Sina Weibo rose to become large companies in their own right.
But Facebook is now apparently plotting a return in earnest. Unnamed current and former employees have claimed it is working on new software designed to prevent certain posts appearing in news feeds in specific countries. It’s the kind of thing Twitter has been doing for a while, and will certainly make it a more attractive prospect for those in charge behind the Great Firewall. The idea would be for Facebook to hand over the job of monitoring and censoring content to a local third-party partner – another prerequisite for many firms doing business in China.
It’s no secret that Zuckerberg, who is currently learning Mandarin and has had high-profile meetings with president Xi Jinping and others of late, would love to crack the vast China market.
But, despite the rumours, life has never been tougher for American companies in the Middle Kingdom. Uber was famously forced to give up its attempts to invest in the country, eventually selling its China business to rival Didi Chuxing. Microsoft is the subject of a long-running antitrust investigation and chip giant Qualcomm was forced to pay nearly $1 billion in antitrust fines in 2015.
The prospect of a sabre-rattling, Russia-friendly Donald Trump in the White House will do little to thaw the icy relationship that has developed between the two superpowers since President Xi came to power.
It also won’t help that Xi and his former internet tsar Lu Wei have presided over the biggest crackdown on internet freedoms in the country’s history. The latest edict stipulates that web firms need to apply for a special license to live-stream content. This won’t make it any easier for Facebook’s China team.
Yet it still might happen. Why? Because forcing one of the biggest tech companies in the US to abide by its rules and censor content would be a huge PR victory for Beijing and Xi’s hard-line approach to online freedom. It would validate China’s advocacy of internet sovereignty; that is, the right of individual countries to regulate the internet as they see fit, and not according to the western view that content should be freely available to all, wherever they are.
Perhaps the question we should be asking is: if Facebook designed a new China site, would anyone actually use it? The truth is that China has a wealth of web firms providing services similar to the Social Network very successfully. Consumers are unlikely to want to leave WeChat, QQ and the like in favour of Facebook. And for businesses inside China already using Facebook ‘proper’ with a VPN, there may not be much incentive to switch over to a localised but censored version – except that pages are likely to load significantly faster.
There may also be a backlash from western users if the firm is seen as facilitating the abuse of basic human rights in China. It certainly happened to LinkedIn when the business user network opened there a few years ago.
“It is a particularly sensitive time for Facebook at the moment so I imagine if they were to announce now that they were in fact entering the China market there would be widespread hostility towards that decision,” Charlie Smith, co-founder of anti-censorship group Greatfire.org, told me by email.
“But sadly, I do think that increasingly the rest of the world does not care about the steps that any foreign company takes to enter the China market. With the current climate, many people are looking at the state of affairs in their own countries and would rather focus on making things right at home first.”
The irony is that Facebook is ostensibly going after China to fulfil its core motto of “giving people the power to share and making the world more open and connected.” But if it actually does gain access to the nation’s nearly one billion web users, they are not likely to be more open and connected. In fact, it will have given the authorities yet another formidable tool to surveil the populace and bolster its power.
Given the way the political winds are currently blowing in the West, maybe it’s better for everyone if Facebook stays out of China for now.
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