24 OCT 2014 – Facebookâ€™s social network is almost completely blocked in China, but maybe Mark Zuckerberg hopes to charm his way past the governmentâ€™s censors â€” by speaking to them in their own language.
On Wednesday, Mr. Zuckerberg, Facebookâ€™s chief executive, impressed a Chinese audience by speaking in Mandarin, the most popular version of spoken Chinese, for about half an hour at a forum at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
He discussed his thoughts on innovation in China, Facebookâ€™s presence in the country and of course, why he learned Chinese (hint: there was a woman involved). He diplomatically avoided any mention of social mediaâ€™s role in the Hong Kong protests or of the governmentâ€™s longtime censorship of Facebook.
His Mandarin was far from perfect, but his words were received with repeated cheers and applause by the assembled students and faculty members.
â€œHello everyone. Thanks for coming,â€ he told the group. â€œIâ€™m very glad to be in Beijing. I love this city. My Chinese is really a mess, but I study using Chinese every day.â€
â€œPerhaps I need practice,â€ he added, to laughter.
Mr. Zuckerberg, 30, this week joined the advisory council of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, a school often compared to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, and his talk was with students and faculty of the school.
Much as Mr. Zuckerberg would like to add Chinaâ€™s billion-plus residents to Facebookâ€™s 1.3 billion global users, his most pressing reason for learning Mandarin was far closer to home.
The Facebook co-founder sets a personal challenge for himself every year, and in 2010, he decided to learn Mandarin. His immediate motive was to win over the family of Priscilla Chan, whom he had been dating for many years.
Dr. Chan, who grew up in Massachusetts, is Chinese-American, and her family speaks Chinese at home. Her grandmother was â€œvery shocked,â€ he said, when he told her in Chinese that he and Dr. Chan were going to be married.
The Facebook chief has continued to practice the language, holding regular chats with company employees who speak it.
Mr. Zuckerberg said that while he knows more words in Mandarin, Dr. Chan, whom he married in 2012, also speaks Cantonese and has much better listening comprehension than he does. â€œOne time I asked her, why is my listening comprehension so bad?â€ Mr. Zuckerberg said. â€œShe said, â€˜Your listening comprehension in English is also bad.â€™ â€
Mr. Zuckerbergâ€™s new association with Tsinghua University shows how Facebook is playing the long game in China.
With rare exceptions, the social network, like other Western Internet services such as Twitter and Google, is blocked inside the country because of Beijingâ€™s concerns that the free flow of information could lead to instability. The professional social network LinkedIn was allowed to open a Chinese language site in the country only after agreeing to censor politically sensitive content posted within China.
Mr. Zuckerberg, who talks often of his desire to connect everyone in the world through Facebook, has decided that to enter China, he first needs to speak another language that Chinaâ€™s leaders understand clearly: commerce.
Asked at the Tsinghua talk about Facebookâ€™s plans in the country, Mr. Zuckerberg took two big gulps from his water bottle to laughter, and then said, â€œWeâ€™re already in China,â€ to more laughs. â€œWe help Chinese companies increase foreign customers. They use Facebook ads to find more customers,â€ he explained, citing how Lenovo, the computer and smartphone maker, uses Facebook to advertise in Indonesia.
Facebook has also worked with Hangzhou and Qingdao to help those Chinese cities attract visitors via their Facebook pages. â€œWe want to help other places in the world connect to China,â€ he said.
The company serves Chinese advertising customers from its Hong Kong office, assisted by two ad resellers in China itself, Pzoom and Shanghai Tian Qing.
In his talk, Mr. Zuckerberg praised Chinaâ€™s technological prowess.
He mentioned that he had dinner with Lei Jun, the founder of the Chinese smartphone upstart Xiaomi. â€œItâ€™s a very innovative company,â€ Mr. Zuckerberg said. â€œIt has a quick development with different products. Theyâ€™re very cheap,â€ he said.
â€œChina is a great country,â€ he said, adding that studying the language helped him understand the culture.
A video of Mr. Zuckerbergâ€™s remarks was quite popular in China, no doubt subtly increasing pressure on the government to eventually allow some version of the service to operate there.
Mr. Zuckerbergâ€™s personal goal for 2014 is to write a heartfelt, handwritten thank-you note every day. Maybe he could dazzle his Chinese fans even further by writing them a mash note in their language and then posting it on Facebook. With any luck, it will get picked up on Weibo, a social network that China doesnâ€™t block.
Source: The New York TImes