The Buzz

Revealed: Why Facebook Will Never Dominate Social Media in China

Last month, Chinese propaganda officials rushed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s defense, ordering media to crack down on criticism of the tech entrepreneur. Interesting company for a man who has celebrated the power of the Internet to enable free speech.

Zuckerberg was in China for meetings with Alibaba founder Jack Maand Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censorship and propaganda chief Liu Yunshan. According to state media, Zuckerberg “spoke highly of the progress China has made in internet field [sic], saying he would work with Chinese peers to create a better world in cyberspace.” It would seem that this “better world” is one where Facebook isn’t blocked by the Chinese government, as Zuckerberg found ways to skirt the Great Firewall and post a picture on the social network of his jog past Tiananmen Square.

Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009, over concerns that it could be used to organize anti-government protests. Zuckerberg has gone to great lengths to make friends among the country’s business and government elite, presumably in hopes that the ban might be lifted. He’s begun to learn Chinese, delivered Chinese New Year well-wishes in the language, and gave his daughter a Chinese name. He serves on the advisory board of the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University, one of China’s top schools. He’s given Lu Wei, director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, a tour of Facebook’s offices, telling Lu at the time that he’d bought copies of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s book The Governance of China for some of his employees.

It’s understandable that Zuckerberg wants Facebook to enter China: the country’s 660 million Internet users are an attractive market. But it’s not going to work.

The evidence suggests that the Chinese market is not interested in the product Facebook has to offer. Despite the controls the government places on freedom of expression, China has a vibrant ecosystem of online communities. And yet, the social networks that are most popular among Chinese people are ones that look very different from Facebook.

Microblogs, known as weibo in Chinese, function more similarly to Twitter than Facebook, and have about 200 million monthly active users.

WeChat, by far the most popular social media platform in China, has 650 million monthly active users, most of whom are assumed to live in China. From the core service it started out as—a messaging app similar to WhatsApp—WeChat has grown into a whole digital ecosystem in a single app. It has integrated mobile payments that are utilized by a fifth of the app’s users. Companies and government agencies use official accounts to connect with consumers and citizens. WeChat’s “Moments” allow users to post pictures that can be viewed by their connections. Businesses have come to rely on WeChat groups for communication among team members, and the app’s maker is now looking into developing an enterprise version akin to Slack. Startups are even using WeChat as a platform for launching their own services. The app has become so ubiquitous that the average Chinese phone user sends just over one text message per day.

The Chinese social network most similar to Facebook in both layout and the way in which users interact with each other, RenRen, has been losing users for years and seen the value of its stock decline by 80 percent since it listed on the NYSE in 2011.