Can Facebook's 'China Dream' get along with Xi Jinping's?

Mark Zuckerberg's meeting with China's internet chief has observers wondering if Facebook could one day reopen behind the Great Firewall. If so, it will likely face greater censorship. 

Mark Schiefelbein/AP
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (l.) speaks as Jack Ma, executive chairman of the Alibaba Group listens to him during a panel discussion held as part of the China Development Forum at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Saturday, March 19.

It takes a lot to get Mark Zuckerberg to change his trademark jeans and grey T-shirt, but 650 million new friends might be worth it.

The Facebook co-founder and CEO appeared in a grey suit last week during the China Development Forum, where he spoke alongside Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, about artificial intelligence and engineering. 

Not up for discussion: censorship. Mr. Ma's purchase of the South China Morning Post, in Hong Kong, has set off concerns that mainland ownership could increase the news outlet's alleged pro-Beijing bias. And Mr. Zuckerberg's latest visit to China, which included a reportedly friendly meeting with Internet czar and propaganda chief Lu Wei on Saturday, has once again prompted questions about whether Facebook will reopen in China – and how much censorship it would have to allow. 

Since China shut down Facebook and Twitter in 2009, blaming social media for unrest in the western Xinjiang region just a year after the Chinese site launched, Zuckerberg has been less than subtle with his efforts to win over officials; the prize of China's 650 million Internet users, twice the size of the entire US population, is hard to ignore. 

In last week's visit, he cheerily posted a picture of his team jogging through Tiananmen Square, withholding comment on the air quality (commenters did the worrying for him); nor did he mention that, like tens of thousands of expats and Chinese Internet users, he'd probably used a virtual private network to circumvent the Great Firewall that blocks Facebook in the first place.

He's bravely taken a few stabs at speaking Mandarin, delivering a 20-minute speech at Tsinghua University this fall that, although (very) far from fluent, listeners agreed was a step up from the previous year's attempt. Zuckerberg reportedly asked President and Party leader Xi Jinping for naming advice before he and his wife, Chinese-American doctor Priscilla Chan, welcomed their firstborn. In 2014, he welcomed Mr. Lu to Facebook headquarters in California.

It could be working. Last week, Lu said he hoped Facebook could "work with Chinese Internet enterprises to enhance exchanges and share experiences, so as to make outcome of the Internet development better benefit the people of all countries," according to party-run Xinhua News Agency, the country's largest news source. 

The company still operates in China, selling ad space on Facebook to Chinese businesses eager to grow their customers. But if Zuckerberg makes his "China Dream" a reality, social network and all, he'll have to make it comply with Mr. Xi's own one, at a time when journalists and publishers seem to be under increasing scrutiny. Since his leadership began in 2012, Mr. Xi has popularized the idea of a "China Dream," a vision of prosperous and powerful China that rests on unity – without much room for dissent.

Social and publicly-sourced media from YouTube to Wikipedia are banned in China, although such services are sometimes accessible by VPN. The rules, which the government says are aimed at preventing social unrest, have helped a generation of domestic apps and sites succeed, such as WeChat and Baidu, which could make it hard for Facebook to craft a unique appeal, even if it did get the go-ahead. 

Hundreds of keywords are banned, including political sore points like the Tiananmen Square massacre and Tank Man, limitations that finally drove Google to pull out its search engine in 2010. Self-censorship is the norm, but the government employs a dozen agencies to weed out unwelcome material, according to the Council of Foreign Relations. Internet providers must be licensed and willing to hand over customer data. 

But pressure on the media has increased in recent months. Xi made a highly publicized appearance at major news agencies in February, where he said that "all news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions, and protect the party’s authority and unity," according to Xinhua. Many observers believe there's been an uptick in detentions of journalists and activists.

"What we’re seeing now is a large-scale offensive that’s comprehensive and well coordinated," University of Pennsylvania professor Yang Guobin, the author of "The Power of the Internet in China," told Time. 

The government has imposed new restrictions on foreign companies who publish in China, as well, and Xi continues to push his idea of "cyber sovereignty": i.e., that countries should not interfere with each other's Internet policies, including censorship.

There's little doubt that Facebook China would need to play by China's rules, earning it criticism at home and around the world. And unlike professional networking site LinkedIn, which agrees to block frowned-upon content in China, Facebook is wall-to-wall with political and social opinions, making it more challenging to meet the Firewall's standards.

"If you think of the Chinese government’s litmus test for accepting foreign tech firms, Facebook is pretty socially corrosive. I don't really see how Facebook can square the circle," Duncan Clark, the founder of Beijing-based tech consulting firm BDA China, told Time. 

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