How Facebook snuck into China

Mark Zuckerberg shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015.
Mark Zuckerberg shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015.
Image: REUTERS/Ted S. Warren/Poo
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Facebook’s apps are almost entirely banned in China. But the social network appears to have secretly authorized the release of one app in the country—minus the Facebook branding.

Instead of Facebook or Facebook Moments, reports the New York Times, the Chinese version of the app is called Colorful Balloons. The name is a nod to the logo (and nearly every other design aspect) it shares with the Facebook Moments app. A company using the name Youge Internet Technology released the app to the iTunes store, according to the Times report.

Like most US technology companies, Facebook desperately wants to reach China’s more than 700 million internet users (pdf). Mark Zuckerberg has made multiple trips to the country and learned Mandarin in an apparent effort to earn permission to operate there. So far he has been unsuccessful.

Rather than onboard a critical mass of users in China, it’s more likely that Facebook intended to use Colorful Balloons to learn about how Chinese users interact with friends. As the Times points out, the app cannot be downloaded from a shared link. This means that instead of clicking on a link sent from a friend, potential users need to actually search for the app in an app store.

“We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country in different ways,” Facebook said in a statement to the Times.

As one of many potential solutions for launching in China, Facebook has reportedly created a tool that could restrict content in certain markets to comply with social norms or with government censorship requirements. It’s unclear how authorizing the launch of a very Facebook-like app in China when Facebook itself is still blocked will impact Facebook’s ability to deploy this or another strategy for entering the country. “It’s not a mere business thing,” Teng Bingsheng, a professor of strategic management at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, told the Times. “It’s politics.”