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Opinion Mark Zuckerberg, give up on China before you embarrass yourself even more

Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, at the Viva Tech start-up and technology summit in Paris in May. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
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In a box in my parents’ basement sits a videotape featuring perhaps the most embarrassing thing Mark Zuckerberg has ever done: dance to the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” at our summer camp talent show. The second most embarrassing thing Zuckerberg has ever done? Prostrate himself to Beijing. And as the years go by and Facebook grows more mature, it’s becoming more painful to watch.

Zuckerberg blurbed Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping’s book “The Governance of China” — which one reviewer called “a mix of stilted Communist Party argot, pleasant-sounding generalizations, and ‘Father Knows Best’ style advice” — and displayed it on his desk when China’s then-Internet czar Lu Wei visited him in December 2014. In March 2016, he posted a picture of himself cheerfully running through Tiananmen Square, the site of the infamous June 1989 massacre. In November 2016, The New York Times revealed that Zuckerberg facilitated the development of a tool that would help Beijing censor Facebook. Zuckerberg even reportedly asked President Xi to give a Chinese name to his unborn daughter — a report that a Zuckerberg spokesperson denied.

In response, Chinese officials toy with him. “I didn’t say Facebook could not enter China,” Lu said in October 2014, “but nor did I say that it could.” (Zuckerberg wasted his time courting Lu: Beijing just accused the now-disgraced official of taking a “huge amount” of bribes.) And on July 25, the New York Times reported that the government had revoked Facebook’s permission to set up an innovation hub in China — just hours after notice of approval appeared in a government database. (In what was almost certainly just an unfortunate coincidence, the report of Beijing yanking its approval came on the day that Facebook announced lackluster earnings, sending its stock down by roughly 20 percent.)

In another article published that day, the Global Times, China’s top Internet troll masquerading as a newspaper, quoted a Chinese analyst making the absurd claim that “China is more open in the high-tech sector compared with the U.S.” Facebook could succeed in China, the analyst said, but first it has to “understand and obey Chinese laws and regulations.”

To avoid further embarrassment, Zuckerberg should give up on entering China. Yes, China has more than twice the number of Internet users as the United States, and Facebook believes it cannot be a truly global company without China. And yes, even though Facebook is blocked in China, it is the company’s largest ad market in Asia, because Chinese companies use Facebook to sell to consumers globally.

But the costs of Facebook (as well as Instagram and WhatsApp, both also blocked on the mainland) entering China clearly outweigh the benefits — a calculus that has changed little since Beijing blocked the company in 2009.

As Chinese Internet regulators, government officials, academics and even Xi himself have slyly reminded Facebook for years, the company won’t succeed in China unless it plays by Chinese rules. That almost certainly means censoring content, storing servers in China and giving Beijing some access to all Facebook accounts anywhere.

This has been a terrible year for Facebook’s reputation as a moral steward of America’s data. But if Facebook yields to Beijing, things could get far worse.

Consider what happened to Yahoo. In 2004, Yahoo gave Beijing information about the online activities of Chinese dissident journalist Shi Tao, who was later sentenced to 10 years in prison. Hauled in front of Congress, the company’s co-founder, Jerry Yang, found himself excoriated. “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies,” the late Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, told him. How unkindly would Congress and Americans see Zuckerberg if he facilitated the arrest of a Chinese dissident, or if he helped Beijing more effectively arrest Muslims in the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang and send them to concentration camps? (Yes. That is a thing that is happening.)

Let’s say Beijing allowed Facebook to operate in China. It would face one of the world’s toughest Internet markets, with several battle-ready competitors — companies like Tencent, which owns China’s most popular social networking app, WeChat; and Alibaba, which seems to own everything else. Beijing far prefers WeChat because it has access to every message sent on the platform, because Tencent’s founder, Pony Ma, needs the approval of the party to stay out of prison, and because it wants Chinese companies to succeed. Internet regulators and local government officials would stymie and extort Facebook every chance they could.

To imagine an even unlikelier hypothetical, let’s take Beijing at its word and imagine it would allow Facebook a fair playing field. Two well-funded Facebook clones — RenRen and Kaixin001 — lost the social media battle to WeChat years ago. “Facebook launching in China,” the writer Charlie Custer wrote in the blog Tech in Asia, “would be like MySpace relaunching in the U.S.”

Facebook does have one real chance of succeeding in China: Localize. Become a Chinese company. Follow the guidelines Xi set out in a major April 2018 speech and “strengthen online positive propaganda, and unequivocally adhere to the correct political direction and the guidance of public opinion.”

The world now has two dominant Internet models. There is the American model, which although it sometimes facilitates hate speech, monopolies and anarchy, prioritizes the free exchange of ideas. And there is Beijing’s model, which prioritizes national sovereignty, order and blandness. Facebook can stay an American company, or become a Chinese one. For Facebook, there is no middle ground.

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