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Is Zuckerberg selling his soul for Facebook access to China?

Preston Gralla | April 22, 2016
Even a mega-philanthropist can look craven when lusting after the world’s largest market.

Mark Zuckerberg recently went on an all-out charm offensive to curry favor with China’s government. His visit may have played well with Chinese officials, but from this side of the Pacific, it looked as if he was willing to sell his soul to gain access to the Chinese market.

Facebook had an estimated 1.59 billion users by the fourth quarter of 2015, but it’s still denied access to China, the world’s biggest Internet market, where more than 721 million people have Internet access. Zuckerberg has long coveted that market. He’s gone so far as to learn Mandarin, and though conquering China has never been among the reasons he has cited for doing so (his wife’s Chinese background was the main factor, he says), being able to butter up Chinese officials in their own language doesn’t hurt.

His soul-selling began not long after he landed in Beijing, when he jogged through pollution-choked Tiananmen Square, then posted a photo of himself on Facebook doing it, with this status update: “It’s great to be back in Beijing! I kicked off my visit with a run through Tiananmen Square, past the Forbidden City and over to the Temple of Heaven.”

Just a regular tourist keeping the folks back home apprised of his overseas doings, right? Not quite. The New York Times, noting that access to Facebook is blocked in China by the Great Firewall, pointed out that Zuckerberg probably had to use a VPN to evade Chinese government Internet filters in order to post the photo and message.

The air during his jog was foul and gray. The Times reported, “The faint smell of something burning hung in the air,” adding that children wore face masks to protect them against the pollution, while in homes and offices people turned up their air purifiers as high as they would go. So why the jogging in the dangerous air, and the accompanying happy talk? To please the Chinese government, which is extremely sensitive about its air-quality woes.

The Chinese social media site Weibo was filled with cynical potshots from people who saw the jog as a publicity stunt meant to please the Chinese government. One typical comment: “It's useless however hard you run. The government will not let you in. Go home and carry on with your life, Zuckerberg.”

But such people may be underestimating Zuckerberg. His Facebook post was packed with subliminal kowtowing. Besides the “What air pollution?” subtext, there was the symbolism of where Zuckerberg chose to run: the site of the Tiananmen Square massacre, an event about which the Chinese government is so sensitive, it censors any and all online mentions of it. By choosing that location for jogging, Zuckerberg sent an “all-is-forgiven” message to Chinese officials.


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