There is no stopping Mark Zuckerberg’s charm offensive in China.
The Facebook founder and CEO once went jogging under a cloud of toxic smog in Beijing. He read Chinese president Xi Jinping’s latest book and recommends it to his employees. He’s trying publicly to master Mandarin. He reportedly even once asked president Xi for a baby name suggestion.
All these efforts are intended to serve Zuckerberg’s goal of unblocking Facebook in China, where he is often jokingly referred to as the founder of “404 not found,” the result of trying to reach Facebook, Instagram—and hundreds of other Western online services deemed threatening to the Communist regime—by those who live behind the country’s Great Firewall.
On Monday (Oct. 30) Zuckerberg was in China again, listening attentively to a Xi speech at the annual meeting of Chinese and foreign advisers to Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University’s business school. Xi’s remarks to the gathering came less than a week after a pivotal Communist Party event that saw the Chinese leader consolidate his power to an unrivaled level. Aside from Zuckerberg, other foreign guests at Xi’s session included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman and former US treasury secretary Henry Paulson, according to official newswire Xinhua.
Zuckerberg’s visit comes at a pivotal time for Facebook too—Colin Stretch, counsel for the social media giant, is due to testify Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee holding hearings on Russian meddling in US elections.
During his speech, Xi reiterated China’s determination (link in Chinese) to further open up its economy and contribute to globalization—points he had made in his lengthy work report to the 19th party congress that concluded last week. While Xi seemed to stick close to his script for the most part, saying that China will continue to open up while safeguarding the country’s “sovereignty, security and development interests,” he also uttered a Chinese idiom to add some color to his remarks.
The idiom “买卖不成仁义在” (maimai bucheng renyi zai) translates as “Despite a failed deal, our friendship remains.”
That might be a perfect description of Zuckerberg’s frustrating courtship with China. Despite having held a series of friendly conversations with top Chinese officials, including Xi (pictured above, center) himself, Zuckerberg has so far made little headway in re-launching Facebook in China since it was blocked in the country since 2009. As Quartz has written, Zuckerberg, among other things, would have to create a censored, localized version of Facebook to work with China’s restrictions on internet freedom and data privacy, if it were to enter China.
There will only be more restrictions as time passes. Around the same time that Zuckerberg was listening to Xi’s speech about openness, China’s internet regulators handed down two sets of new regulations (paywall) requiring stricter scrutiny for social-media platforms—more items for Zuckerberg’s to-do list.
Facebook declined to comment on Zuckerberg’s China visit.
Of course, it is also possible that Xi had other listeners in mind when he uttered the idiom—for example, US president Donald Trump. Xi said he is looking forward to meeting Trump in Beijing early next month, when they are expected to talk about trade and North Korea among other contentious issues.