Facebook's Zuckerberg goes on charm blitz to win China's Like

Facebook's Mr Mark Zuckerberg and Alibaba's Mr Jack Ma at the China Development Forum in Beijing last Saturday. Their conversation was one of Mr Zuckerberg's many moves over the weekend that drew local headlines and captivated the online audience in
Facebook's Mr Mark Zuckerberg and Alibaba's Mr Jack Ma at the China Development Forum in Beijing last Saturday. Their conversation was one of Mr Zuckerberg's many moves over the weekend that drew local headlines and captivated the online audience in China.PHOTO: REUTERS

But it is unclear whether this will persuade Beijing to lift ban on the social media service

HONG KONG • In terms of publicity, it has been a great weekend for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in China.

He returned to Beijing for yet another trip that drew local headlines and captivated online China. He wrote a post that went viral about a jog through Tiananmen Square; held a widely covered conversation with China's best-known entrepreneur, Mr Jack Ma of Alibaba; and last Saturday met one of the most powerful men in China, Mr Liu Yunshan, the country's propaganda chief.

It followed previous trips in which Mr Zuckerberg impressed Chinese audiences with his rookie Chinese language skills and spoke about his fascination with the country. Even while outside China, he met China's President, Mr Xi Jinping; told a Chinese official he was reading a book of President Xi's words; and gave his newborn daughter, Max, a Chinese name. (It is Chen Mingyu.)

The visits have cemented his place as one of the best-known foreign business executives in China. But it is far from clear whether his charm offensive will unlock Mr Zuckerberg's ultimate goal: persuading the Chinese government to lift its ban on the social media service and open it to the country's almost 700 million Internet users.

Courting Chinese leaders in such a public fashion is an unusual strategy for a foreign executive. With star power comes influence, and any clout not directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party can be deemed dangerous. China demonstrated this last month, when a widely read social media account by a prominent real estate tycoon disappeared after he criticised Mr Xi's call for unswerving loyalty from the country's media.

The few US technology firms that have entered China in recent years have played down their efforts. Though Mr Travis Kalanick, a co-founder of Uber, frequently travels to China, news of his presence rarely spreads across the Chinese Internet. There was almost no fanfare before LinkedIn's deal with two closely connected Chinese venture capital shops to enter China, an event that was marked with a blog post.

If Mr Zuckerberg succeeds, it could show other foreign companies blocked in China that they have a potential path into the huge and fast-growing market - one that calls for them to accept China's strict controls on discourse and to refrain from rocking the boat.

If Mr Zuckerberg succeeds, it could show other foreign companies blocked in China that they have a potential path into the huge and fast-growing market - one that calls for them to accept China's strict controls on discourse and to refrain from rocking the boat. A failure would underscore Chinese distrust of foreign technology companies and cement the idea that the low-profile approach is the only way to gain market access.

Mr Zuckerberg's meeting with Mr Liu - a rarity for a US business executive - underscores the dynamic. Mr Liu sits on the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, the summit of power in China. The meeting serves China's propaganda purposes, allowing it to show that one of the titans of America's new tech-based economy is happy to pay homage to China's leaders and its style of Internet governance.

If there is anyone Facebook has to win over, it is Mr Liu, who has for years presided over the controls on China's highly censored and stage-managed media.

At the meeting, Mr Liu lauded Facebook's technology prowess, but he also emphasised the importance of Internet governance "with Chinese characteristics", according to an official state media account, a reference to censorship and surveillance within China.

Mr Zuckerberg praised China's progress in building an advanced Internet and vowed to work with Chinese peers to "build a better world in cyberspace", according to Xinhua, China's official news agency.

A Facebook spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

China's state-run television broadcaster China Central Television posted a social media message that included a photo of Mr Zuckerberg and his Chinese-American wife Priscilla Chan. Next to the photo, a cartoon character declares: "A son-in-law of China!"

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Zuckerberg goes on charm blitz to win China's Like'. Print Edition | Subscribe