Facebook taking a common sense approach to content in China
It remains the conventional wisdom among overseas companies that their success or failure in China will be largely determined by the effectiveness of their local strategies.
There are approximately 77 million foreign companies that operate in China in some fashion, according to a report released by China’s Administration for Industry and Commerce in January.
It came as no surprise to me that during the recent Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Facebook, the social networking giant, was reported to have quietly created software to censor content on its website in China, an effort that signifies its willingness to abide by local laws on cyber content and security.
Given China’s massive potential as the world’s largest mobile and internet market with more than 721 million users, no US brands can afford to lose an opportunity there.
Facebook is under pressure for continuous growth and looking for its next billion users. It sells ads for many businesses from its Hong Kong office.
Some Western observers suspect that Facebook is paying too high a price for entering the Chinese market; for example, a recent article on Forbes.com called Facebook’s content censorship “a tough choice”, and an analysis at The New York Times referred to the software as “suppression tools”.
All foreign companies operating in China need to follow local rules, and they should carefully construct their strategies to consider differences in ideology, cultural and social norms, and more importantly, the laws of China.
To be effective in China, the management of a foreign company should nurture cultural sensitivity and display a willingness to adapt products, services and management styles to meet industry norms. Companies must build trust with local clients and industry administrators while adhering to international business standards and corporate ethics.
I applaud the great efforts that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made over the years to cultivate a relationship with China. He, among several other CEOs at American high-tech companies such as Tim Cook at Apple, Virginia Rometty at IBM and Jeffrey Bezos at Amazon, was received by President Xi Jinping in Seattle during his US state visit in 2015.
Zuckerberg has made himself a household name in China by visiting many times, giving a speech at Tsinghua University in Mandarin, jogging near the Forbidden City, and along with his wife and toddler daughter, sending Chinese New Year greetings in Mandarin.
According to insiders, the new feature of Facebook’s software will prevent certain content from appearing in feeds to comply with government requests.
Instead of blocking the posts itself, Facebook would opensource the software to a third party, most likely a Chinese partner company, to monitor sensitive posts that might go viral. It would be the Chinese partner’s responsibility to determine whether such content should be removed or not.
In response to employees’ questions about the tool, Zuckerberg said at a gathering in July at Facebook’s Menlo Park, California headquarters: “It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation (with China).”
A Facebook spokesperson said “we have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country”.