The leaders of Facebook and Apple were in China this past week on separate missions with the same goal: gain better transparency and more access to the Chinese market.
When Facebook's multi-billion-dollar initial public offering launched more than two years ago, details of its prospectus shed light on Facebook's possible entry into China.
In the prospectus, FB said: "China is a large potential market for Facebook, but users are generally restricted from accessing Facebook from China. We do not know if we will be able to find an approach to managing content and information that will be acceptable to us and to the Chinese government. It is also possible that governments of one or more other countries may seek to censor content available on our website, restrict access, block our website, or impose other restrictions that may affect the accessibility of Facebook for an extended period of time or indefinitely."
They got that right. Almost 9 years ago (January 26, 2006) ChinaTechNews.com augured in the commentary "Google Is Destined To Fail In China" of that search engine's imminent disaster in China. The company was plagued with problems as far back as a 2003. Google has now partially departed China, and Google is a footnote in the minds of Chinese netizens even though it provides a superior product to homegrown search rival Baidu.com.
Name a single non-Asian Internet company that is doing well in China. Go ahead, name one. You can't think of one because there are none. AOL crashed and burned a few times in China; Yahoo is a boardroom disaster which only did well via its proxy investment in Alibaba; Lycos failed; MSN ekes out space, but not clout, by dint of being a browser default; and Linkedin has received lots of foreign media attention for its China venture, but is still a shallow player in China. Meanwhile, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo, and other social media cum social networking companies are blocked in China.
Foreign Internet companies are media companies. And China's media is protected, locked, and not open to debate. Social media in China is truly social because the State directs and controls content — social(ism) media has been alive and State-sponsored since 1949.
So Mark Zuckerberg's arrival in China this week is potentially a waste of jet fuel. He's a jester in a court with no sense of humor because no matter how much he tries to endear himself to Chinese netizens and the Chinese government, Zuckerberg's product will continue to be banned in China.
In Facebook's current form, the Chinese ban on Facebook will outlive the company. Facebook will be blocked until Zuckerberg allows censorship along the lines appreciated by the Chinese authorities. Yes, Facebook will be able to sell advertising in China via Chinese-owned advertising agents and its offshore entity in Hong Kong (try getting ad dollars from a Chinese company sent down to Hong Kong!), but the website will never see the grey of day in Beijing.
For Tim Cook and Apple's hacks in China, the company too treads a multi-layered struggle in China. Apple contends with Chinese encryption and privacy standards; Chinese electronics standards; telecommunication company machinations; and normal Chinese retail after-sales woes.
This past week, foreign media reported that Chinese users of Apple's iPhone had possible security failings. Rumors swirled the attacks on the iPhones emanated from the Chinese government, and the Chinese government denied the allegations. Tim Cook (note that his predecessor Steve Jobs never visited China) flew into Beijing immediately to meet with Chinese government officials and take a tour of a Foxconn factory that makes Apple products.
While security and privacy are important to Apple, these concepts are much more important to Apple's users. Unfortunately, at the same time as Apple possibly pleads with the Chinese government for a wider berth to deploy its secure products, the head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is asking Apple and other technology companies to provide weaker security to aid governments.
So this creates a dilemma for Apple, and an opportunity for the Chinese government. Why should the Chinese government give Apple any solace over security worries when the U.S. government is publicly asking for front doors into the smartphones of the world's mobile netizens?
Again, Tim Cook's China trip only gives him some airline mileage, and nothing more. Like Internet media, access to user data is a top security priority for the Chinese government. Asking the Chinese government not to have access to user data is not something that should be broached with so much public scrutiny.
Ultimately, Apple and Facebook will tread different paths. Apple is already popular in China, but its stay is at the pleasure of the electronics czars. And Facebook will continue to only share with Chinese culture the first syllable of its name: face.