INTERNET: China Reaches Out To Facebook In Growing Courtship

Bottom line: The visit by a top Chinese Internet official to Facebook’s US campus shows Mark Zuckerberg’s charm offensive toward China is producing results, which could see his company finally get permission to enter the market next year.

China Internet official Lu visits Facebook campus

I have to commend Mark Zuckerberg for his tenacity, after the Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) founder once again made headlines for receiving a visit from a top Chinese Internet official visiting the US. There are several interesting things about this latest development involving Zuckerberg’s endless quest to bring Facebook to China, beginning with the source of this latest news.

It turns out the news didn’t come from Facebook or even ordinary people who caught a glimpse of the meeting, but rather it came from the web page, an official government site under the State Council. (Chinese article) What’s more, the account was rather detailed and upbeat, and featured several photos of Zuckerberg chatting happily on the Facebook campus with Lu Wei, minister of the Cyberspace Administration of China.

If I were to give a quick analysis, I would say that Zuckerberg’s charm offensive in his bid to get Facebook into China is starting to show some positive results by giving Beijing some positive face. After all, China’s Internet regulators certainly earn much-needed credibility when they’re photographed with Zuckerberg, and Lu’s presence on Facebook’s open and freewheeling campus adds a certain air of humanness to China’s legions of faceless bureaucrats.

All that said, let’s step back for a moment and review the bigger picture of Lu’s recent trip, which saw him meet not only with Zuckerberg but also with Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) CEO Tim Cook and Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos, 3 of the most recognized names and faces in the Internet world. (English article) Of the trio, Apple and Amazon are already in China, though both have faced their own difficulties in the market. But Facebook is the clear odd man out, after Beijing started blocking the site in 2009 for not complying with China’s strict self-censorship laws.

There’s not much text in the article that is mostly a photo montage, except a brief description of Lu’s visit to the Facebook campus where Zuckerberg did a good job of playing up to his powerful guest. Among other things, Zuckerberg chatted in his recently-learned Mandarin with Lu, and also strategically placed a copy of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s book “The Governance of China” on his own desk. When Lu spotted the book, Zuckerberg said he was asking several employees to read it to better understand China’s socialist system.

Its also worth noting that the first 4 photos from the website montage all came from the Facebook visit, including 3 of Lu with Zuckerberg. Cook comes next with 2 photos, and Bezos is last with 2 more photos. China watchers will know that this kind of order is often quite important, and the most important Chinese leaders are usually featured most prominently in group photos and on newspaper front pages. The fact that Facebook not only came first but also got 4 photos, versus 2 each for Apple and Amazon, also seems significant.

Zuckerberg has certainly given China plenty of face these past few years, which probably explains his prominent place in the web article, even though Beijing officially blocks his site. The Facebook founder has said repeatedly he wants to bring his company to China, and has made numerous private and official trips to the country and studied Mandarin. Most recently he attended an event in October at Tsinghua, China’s leading sciences university (previous post), and Facebook is also in the process of setting up a sales office in Beijing.

Apple’s Cook has also visited China frequently since taking over at the helm of the tech giant, including his most recent trip in October. (previous post) But Cook is often here to smooth over tense relations with Beijing, after the company was labeled as “arrogant” by the Communist Party’s official newspaper, The People’s Daily. To my knowledge, Bezos hasn’t traveled to China at all over these past few years and personally seems to be the least smitten with the country of these 3 executives.

The fact that Lu almost certainly took the initiative to contact Zuckerberg to arrange the visit during his recent trip means that China may be trying to show some gratitude for all the face it’s received from Facebook these days. If that’s the case, which seems likely, then I would reiterate my previous prediction that Facebook will finally win its long-sought entry to China sometime next year, which will most likely be granted in the form of a local joint venture that’s separate from its main site.

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