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Did Tencent just build a way around the Great Firewall of China?

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Tencent, China’s largest tech company, just launched a multilingual version of its chat platform QQ on Facebook. QQ is the Chinese equivalent of Yahoo Messenger, circa 2003—only it has 800 million active users. And the version of QQ that Tencent made for Facebook isn’t much different: Its core function is pretty much the same as Facebook’s own chat function.

Wait. Why would anyone use an app in Facebook that does pretty much exactly the same thing as Facebook chat?

Because the Chinese government blocks Facebook and has since 2009. The QQ app makes it so Facebook users outside of China can chat with friends both inside and outside of the country without having to leave the Facebook screen.

So does that mean the throngs of Chinese government censors monitoring QQ for “sensitive” content will now be “correcting errors in public opinion” on Facebook, too?

The answer to this question has two major implications. First, there’s the question of whether Tencent’s obligation as a Chinese company to monitor speech on its platforms extends to QQ conversations on Facebook involving non-Chinese people outside of China. Based on the Chinese government’s ongoing surveillance of Google, the signs certainly seem to point to yes. Plus, WeChat had barely begun to take off overseas before users noticed the blocking of “sensitive words” in the app.

Second, though, is whether Tencent’s duty to censor extends to Chinese nationals outside of China. It’s not a small demographic. For instance, nearly 200,000 Chinese students study in the US each year, and you can bet nearly every single one of them gets a Facebook account even before their student ID cards are minted. Meanwhile, a rapidly rising proportion of overseas students are returning to China after graduation. Will these people need to watch what they say on Facebook now?

Of course, unless the app gets some real traction, this is all theoretical. But even if Tencent doesn’t have to work out its policy right away, this problem looms for all Chinese companies looking to expand overseas. Chinese companies desperately want to go global. But if that means taking government surveillance of speech along with them, that’s going to prove a brutally tough sell—to foreigners and international Chinese people alike.

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