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Can Facebook and China be friends?

China, the world's biggest Internet market, is a huge draw for Facebook as it prepares to go public, but Beijing is deeply suspicious of social networks that lie beyond the control of the ruling Communist Party.

By Staff writer / February 3, 2012

This December 2011 file photo, shows a worker inside Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. China, the world’s biggest Internet market, with more than half a billion citizens online, could be a gold mine for Facebook as it prepares to go public.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File

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Beijing

Of all the factors that will decide Facebook’s potential market value as it prepares to sell shares to the public, few weigh as heavily as China.

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On the one hand, the world’s biggest Internet market, with more than half a billion citizens online, could be a gold mine. On the other, the social media giant could reach those users only by bowing to strict Chinese censorship, risking a costly blow to its international reputation.

Facebook is clearly tempted. Its filing to the SEC this week mentioned China nine times. “China is a large potential market for Facebook” and “we continue to evaluate entering China,” the document said.

But the company is also dubious about its prospects for success there. “We do not know if we will be able to find an approach to manage content and information that will be acceptable to us and to the Chinese government,” it acknowledges.

Strong dragon must beware local snakes

Nor would China be a pushover even if Facebook did decide to compete here, warns Kuang Wenbo, a professor of Internet studies at Beijing’s Renmin University. A number of local Facebook clones have already firmly established themselves, he points out, quoting a Chinese proverb: “A strong dragon cannot beat a local snake.”

Facebook has been blocked in China for nearly three years, making it inaccessible to the vast majority of local Internet users who do not use sophisticated software to circumvent the “Great Firewall” that online censors have erected.

The government here is deeply suspicious of outfits such as Facebook that offer platforms to build social networks beyond the control of the ruling Communist Party.

Policymakers will likely be even more nervous when they read Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to potential investors, in which the Facebook founder this week set out his vision of “a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people.”

Path to compromise?

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