Since regulators blocked the service in 2009, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has hired well-connected executives, developed censorship tools and taken a ‘smog jog’ in Beijing—but the company has made no visible headway.
Such permits typically give Western firms an initial China beachhead. This one, which Facebook won in late 2015, could have been a sign Beijing was ready to give the company another chance to connect with China’s roughly 700 million internet users, reopening the market as the social-media giant’s U.S.-growth prospects dimmed.
There was a catch. Facebook’s license was for three months, unusually short. Facebook executives found the limitation unexpected and frustrating, people familiar with the episode said.
Facebook never opened the office. The official posting disappeared and now exists as a ghost in cached versions of the government website. “We did, at one point in time, plan to have an office,” said Facebook spokeswoman Charlene Chian, “but we don’t today.”
The episode is part of Facebook’s running tale of woe in China, where it has been trying to set the stage for a return. Blocked on China’s internet since 2009, Facebook has courted Chinese officials, made Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg more visible in China, hired a well-connected China-policy chief and begun developing technology that could cull content the Communist Party deems unacceptable.
It has made no visible headway. And as time passes, Facebook is watching from the outside as Chinese social-media giants mop up the market that might have been its own. Weibo, along with Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat and QQ, are now dominant in China, and it may be too late for Facebook, said industry executives including Kai-Fu Lee, Google’s former China head and now CEO of Innovation Works, a Chinese incubator.
“At this stage and time with WeChat, Weibo and other products, it’s hopeless,” Mr. Lee said.
Facebook also faces a wary central government, which blamed social media for stirring ethnic unrest in 2009 and remains uneasy with Facebook’s ability to be a dissidents’ megaphone, said industry executives and others who deal with Beijing regulators. And government censorship would be a prerequisite, under Chinese law, for Facebook to re-enter China.
“It’s important for Facebook to respect the laws and regulations of China,” said Guo Weimin, vice minister of the State Council Information Office. “The Chinese government has always had an open approach to social-media networks. Cooperation with new media is welcome on our side.”
Mr. Zuckerberg, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said he considers China crucial to Facebook’s future. “Obviously you can’t have a mission of wanting to connect everyone in the world and leave out the biggest country,” he told analysts in 2015. “Over the long term, that is a situation we will need to figure out a way forward on.”
His drive has had fits and starts. He scored a high-profile board seat at one of China’s top universities to build inroads with Chinese officials but didn’t attend the body’s meeting last year. Read the rest of this entry »