Facebook and Beijing

Mark Zuckerberg faces a dilemma if he wants to do business with China and its Communist censors.


Can information companies participate in China’s huge market without selling their souls to the Communist Party? Facebook is the latest American tech firm to face this question, and critics are blaming the social-media giant for taking down a post about self-immolation by a Tibetan monk. The issue deserves more than easy condemnation.

China has long blocked Facebook, and founder Mark Zuckerberg has made overtures to Beijing to enter the country. In October he gave a speech in Mandarin at Tsinghua University, and earlier this month he hosted China’s chief Internet censor, Lu Wei, at the Facebook campus in California.

Many free-speech advocates are already accusing Mr. Zuckerberg of betrayal, citing the removal on Friday of the Tibet video as proof. But Facebook has a long-standing practice of removing graphic or violent content, which may have been its immediate motive here.

It was still mistaken. While the immolation is horrifying, it is also the way that Tibetan monks have tried to draw attention to their plight under Chinese rule. This is why China wants such scenes covered up. Facebook to its credit recognized this in a statement Sunday, suggesting that after a warning system is added to the site, such content will be allowed.

Another reading of Facebook’s intentions in China may come from Russia. Last week the company blocked access to a page promoting a rally in support of opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who was given a suspended sentence on trumped up political charges Tuesday. The page was still visible outside Russia, and users quickly created more such pages that Facebook did not block. Moscow is tightening the screws on Google and Twitter as well, but so far the government’s censorship has backfired, increasing awareness of opposition activities.

China arrests anyone attempting to organize a political group. But even a censored version of Facebook would still bring greater access to information for Chinese users, who have been confined to China-only social networks and isolated from international users. Access to Facebook would dramatically widen their horizons.

But Facebook would also face political and business risks. China’s remarkably robust censorship depends on Internet firms doing most of the work themselves. Within each company are employees who scour the site for objectionable content, based on directives from the Ministry of Information.

No Western company can actively engage in censorship and retain the trust of its customers. Google refused to carry out this work and began to route searches through its Hong Kong servers. That led the government to block its search engine, and for several days Gmail was completely blocked too.

Facebook would be obliged to obey a block on sensitive words such as the three Ts and one F: Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan and Falun Gong. Chinese netizens are quick to find ways around taboo words anyway. And if the government asks it to take down specific content, it must comply.

The red line is pro-active censorship of content that Facebook fears could anger the government. Beijing already uses Facebook as a way to track its critics, and all users should be aware that governments have legal and extralegal means to track them online. As long as Facebook does not collude in the Ministry of State Security’s efforts—for instance, bringing dissident activity to its attention—locating its servers within China is not unethical.

We suspect this protocol won’t be acceptable to Beijing, and that Facebook’s entry into the Chinese market on such terms won’t last. The Communist Party may strike a deal on the assumption that it will be able to pressure Mr. Zuckerberg to do its bidding later. The Party demands 100% loyalty and compliance.

If Facebook wants to try to do business in China without internalizing the censorship regime, then more power to it. The potential reward to shareholders and Chinese customers are considerable, but so are the risks to its brand and reputation.