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Microsoft founder Bill Gates attends a session at the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) annual conference in Boao town, Hainan province
Reuters/Tyrone Siu
“I’ve been practicing…”
NI HAO

Bill Gates is the latest public figure to speak clumsy Mandarin to millions of Chinese

By Josh Horwitz

Bill Gates is joining the ranks of Mark Zuckerberg and Arabella Trump as another American public figure eager to show off their Chinese skills.

The entrepreneur and philanthropist recently created a public account on WeChat, China’s chat app behemoth, and greeted fans with a welcome message in Mandarin. His appearance on the social network marks the latest instance of an American businessperson ramping up publicity in China, in an effort to engage more deeply with Chinese internet users.

A first post dated Feb. 11 features the billionaire in a video greeting followers in Chinese, urging them to subscribe to the account for updates on the books he’s reading and “what [he’s] learning.” It looks set to become a translated version of gatesnotes, Gate’s popular blog best known for its insightful reading lists and posts that touch on topics like disease, energy, and other issues relevant to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

QQ Video

To date, the post has received over 5,700 likes on WeChat.

Gatesnotes is not blocked in China, but it’s only in available in English. Since Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, public figures from outside the country must resort to other channels if they hope to reach Chinese people with the same efficiency as they reach people in other countries. Tim Cook, for example, often posts on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-esque social network, when he makes trips to China.

WeChat, which has over 800 million monthly active users, is the closest analog China now has to Facebook and Twitter. The app has become a Swiss Army knife for Chinese smartphone owners, serving as a news-reading app, a virtual wallet, and potentially an app-store-to-replace-all-app-stores. Public accounts like the one Gates created function much like blogs and RSS feeds.

For overseas CEOs, jumping on Chinese social media and mugging for the cameras also serves as a gesture of goodwill to Chinese authorities. As mounting political pressures make doing business in China more difficult for foreign companies, founders eager to retain a foothold in the market can pull small PR stunts to demonstrate their commitment to the country.

So how is Gates’ Chinese?

Gates, unlike Mark Zuckerberg, does not appear to be making a concerted effort to actually learn Mandarin. That said, his Chinese is very poor, and sounds as though an assistant behind the camera was coaching him as he spoke. He borrows from English and uses a ”completed” inflection mid-sentence, as if to say, ”Hello, welcome to my. WeChat public account.”

Native Chinese tend to appreciate minimal efforts made by foreigners to speak the language. But not everyone was ready to hear more from Gates. One Chinese commenter on QQ Video, a Youtube-like streaming site, gave the founder a scathing critique (link in Chinese). “It’d be better to just hear him speak English. Hearing him speak Chinese makes our hearts die.”