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Audrey Jiajia Li

Mark Zuckerberg’s China dilemma: To kowtow or not?

WhatsApp, a Facebook messaging application, has apparently been blocked in China. EPA

The axe seems to have finally fallen last week in China on Facebook’s instant messaging service, WhatsApp. Just like every other major product of Mark Zuckerberg’s, it too is now apparently being blocked. The social media tycoon’s most popular service, Facebook, was blocked in 2009; five years later in 2014, the image-sharing app, Instagram met the same fate. Facebook once again declined to comment, perhaps to avoid being seen as critical of the Chinese government.

Ironically, just 16 months ago, Zuckerberg spoke passionately against blocking communication apps, calling it “very scary” when Brazil lifted a 72-hour block on WhatsApp. In his Facebook post, he called on Brazilians to gather outside Congress in Brasilia to demand that the messaging service never be blocked again.


The contrast is too obvious to ignore, yet not surprising. In December 2014, three months after Instagram was blocked, Zuckerberg reportedly urged his staff to read a book of speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping. “I want them to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Zuckerberg said when Lu Wei, China’s Internet czar, visited Facebook’s California headquarters, according to the Washington Post.

Money talks. The Chinese market is so huge that few can resist the temptation. Ever since Facebook was barred in 2009, Zuckerberg has waged a relentless lobbying campaign trying to woo Beijing into letting it re-enter the country. He has been intensively studying the Chinese language. “Chinese is difficult but I like challenges,” Zuckerberg said during a talk at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University in 2015, when he insisted in speaking entirely in Mandarin.

And it went even farther when Zuckerberg asked President Xi Jinping of China to offer a Chinese name for his soon-to-be-born first child at a White House dinner in 2015. To the Chinese people, it clearly seemed as an effort to flatter the president, as naming a baby is usually a privilege reserved for the most respected elders within the family. Embarrassingly, President Xi declined.


Nevertheless, Zuckerberg has not given up huffing and puffing in his attempt to conquer this difficult mountain. He hired well-connected executives to operate in China, developed censorship tools to meet the Chinese regulatory rules, and even took a “smog jog” in the Chinese capital known for its heavily polluted air in the spring of 2016. After seeing a photo of him running in the Tiananmen Square, when toxic particle air pollution was 15 times above safety level, mockery immediately choked up China’s social media. One post read: “He climbed over the Great Fire Wall to breathe in smog; he’s trying too hard!”

It’s not exactly fair to pick on Zuckerberg for wooing the Chinese authorities this hard. Just as the government there was cracking down on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which many Chinese netizens use to get around the Great Fire Wall, Apple announced in July that it was removing VPN services from the app store in China. And last month, the acclaimed Cambridge University Press briefly removed more than 300 academic articles from a China Quarterly website, at the request of the Chinese government, to avoid having the entire website blocked in China, before outcries from the academic community convinced the publisher to restore the access to the papers.

From Facebook to Twitter, from Google to YouTube, from the New York Times to the Economist, almost all major social media apps, along with many of the international news sites, are now inaccessible in China. Some companies self-censor their content hoping to stay in or re-enter the Chinese market, while a few others stick to their guns and refuse to comply.


The big question: To kowtow or not.

Two months ago, when the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, China’s most well-known human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo, was laying in his death bed in a heavily guarded hospital, leaders of the G20 nations gathered in Hamburg, Germany, made no official mention of the activist at all. Concerned about upsetting the world’s second largest economy and biggest exporter, they kept their lips zipped and focused on trade, pandas, or soccer.

In decades past, the international community used to pressure the Chinese authorities to improve human rights conditions, including freedom of speech and the right to information. Apparently, that is no longer the case. This year, Greece blocked a European Union statement on China’s human rights at the United Nations, and the Trump administration is obviously giving less weight to human rights concerns. As a social media comment jokingly put it: We were told that when we have a powerful country, no one dares to bully us; it turns out that when our country becomes powerful, no one dares to care about us.

There is also a saying that if someone is rich enough, he can mute all critics, at home and abroad. Can we really blame Zuckerberg for trying a bit too hard to prove that in facing the wealth of the world’s second largest economy, even a billionaire can be silenced?


Audrey Jiajia Li is the 2017 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). She currently is in residence at the MIT Center for International Studies.