Talk swirls that Beijing may 'like' Facebook soon

Recent events hint Chinese govt may allow social networking site to return: Observers

Is Facebook returning to China?

Buzz has surrounded the world's biggest social networking site in the world's most populous country, after recent events suggested the two could be warming up to each other, which observers believe will culminate in Facebook's return.

Unfriended since 2009, when riots in Xinjiang and concerns over social media's impact on national stability led Beijing to cut off access, Facebook has since been working hard to get a "like" from Beijing.

RETHINKING CURBS ON TECH FIRMS

China worries about social instability, but this also hurts its policy to drive growth through the Internet. That is something they need to seriously think about.

MR SHAUN REIN, founder of Shanghai-based China Market Research Group, on online curbs

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg won kudos from many Chinese last year when he fielded questions in Mandarin at Tsinghua University. A series of events during President Xi Jinping's United States visit last month fuelled even more talk.

Ahead of the trip, for instance, a Facebook community page was set up for the visit, which swiftly garnered one million likes. "Xi's US Visit" was verified by Facebook, suggesting it was an official page.

Mr Zuckerberg was one of several top tech leaders who met Mr Xi in the Seattle leg of the visit. Writing on his Facebook page, he said he spoke to Mr Xi wholly in Mandarin, adding that he considered this an "honour and personal milestone".

"People who love to interpret these things noted that Zuckerberg was in the first row of a group picture that included the likes of Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos," Fudan University journalism lecturer Doug Young wrote on his blog last week .

Foreign affairs expert Teng Jianqun believes the signs point to an impending lifting of restrictions.

"(The meeting with Zuckerberg) indicates that China's leadership is willing to accept Facebook or allow Facebook to operate in China," he was quoted as saying.

Experts speculate that Facebook may gain access "soon", possibly as early as next year. But Chinese officials declined to comment on this or on Mr Xi's Facebook page.

In a written reply to The Straits Times, China's Foreign Ministry would say only that the number of views on Mr Xi's page "reflected the attention and welcome that President Xi received on his trip".

Still, the potential rewards for Facebook are great. The country's burgeoning middle class and 650 million online users offer an appetising new market, noted Mr Brendan Ahern, chief investment officer for KraneShares, which operates Chinese exchange-traded funds.

In fact, Facebook has already built a "thriving" business in China by helping its companies connect with consumers all over the world, its chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said last month.

Facebook has reportedly been selling ads to Chinese firms through offices in Hong Kong and Beijing.

"We are studying and learning about China, and our focus is on helping Chinese businesses and developers expand to new markets outside China by using our ad platform," a Facebook spokesman told The Straits Times in an e-mail response. It declined to share details on its revenue or number of clients in China.

The biggest challenge for Facebook, if it does return to China, is that the social media landscape has changed vastly since 2009, leaving little room even for such a big player. So, unseating, say, the wildly popular WeChat would be a daunting task, experts say.

Mr Shaun Rein, founder of Shanghai-based China Market Research Group, suggested that it could partner a Chinese tech giant like Alibaba or Baidu as they "have the trust of the government and know how to navigate the bureaucracy".

Letting Facebook return is also good for China, experts say. It can introduce competition, help Chinese companies expand abroad and cultivate a start-up culture among entrepreneurs.

"China worries about social instability, but this also hurts its policy to drive growth through the Internet," Mr Rein said. "That is something they need to seriously think about."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2015, with the headline 'Talk swirls that Beijing may 'like' Facebook soon'. Print Edition | Subscribe