Even if the motive behind it was sincere, it's hard to deny that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's decision to conduct a Beijing Q and A session almost entirely in Mandarin in October was great PR. His language skills may have been a little clumsy, but they showed humility and passion on the part of the young tech billionaire.
For some Chinese Internet users, it was a very promising sign. “I really hope this can help resolve the problem of the internet being blocked,” one Sina Weibo user wrote after seeing the footage.
However, it looks as if some of that good PR may have been undone on Monday, when a photograph of Zuckerberg appeared on a state-run Chinese news site. It showed China's Internet czar, Lu Wei, visiting Facebook's Silicon Valley offices. On Zuckerberg's table, the accompanying article notes, was a book by China's President Xi Jinping called: "The Governance of China."
“I’ve also bought copies of this book for my colleagues,” Zuckerberg was quoted as saying by a Chinese news website. “I want them to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
The sight of Xi's book on a tech tycoon's table has been taken as hypocritical and absurd by many observers – the government Xi leads has one of the most restrictive Internet policies in the entire world and Facebook itself is banned in the country. Zuckerberg's promoting of the book struck many as kow-towing.
"Zuckerberg is an internet genius, the founder of the Facebook empire," Hu Jia, a prominent Chinese dissident, told the Telegraph. "Yet his understanding of Chinese politics is like that of a three-year-old not a 30-year-old." On Weibo, many users also criticized Zuckerberg. An image from expat publication That's Magazine, showing Zuckerberg re-imagined as a Mao-era Red Guard loyally clutching Xi's book, began to trend:
— Bridget O'Donnell (@bridgers) December 8, 2014
The exact circumstances of Lu Wei's visit to Facebook are unclear. Officially referred to as the minister of the Cyberspace Administration of China, Lu had been in Silicon Valley recently to visit a number of American technology firms, including Apple and Amazon. Despite the warm welcome he was shown by these companies, Lu has appeared hostile to them in recent comments.
“What we won’t allow is that you have the market in China, you make money in China, and you are hurting China in the meantime,” Lu had said in a speech in September. “If you are hurting China’s interests, China’s security or you are hurting the interests of Chinese consumers, we won’t allow this to exist.”
In this context, it's worth considering what Zuckerberg's motives might be if he really is asking his employees to read the book. "The Governance of China," a collection of more than 80 speeches by Xi designed to show the answers to China's problems, was published earlier this year and widely touted by the Chinese state media. Its intended audience may well be people just like international figures just like Zuckerberg -- it's been translated into a wide variety of languages and published around the world.
Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009 and Zuckerberg has clearly been pushing to be allowed to enter the huge market. However, the Chinese government's apparent decision to block Instagram (a rare Facebook product allowed in mainland China) during the Hong Kong protests in September may have reminded him just how important his relationship with the Chinese government is going to be. All the good PR in the world won't work unless Beijing is on board.