Government and governance, Trade and industry, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

21 December 2016

What would lifting a ban on Facebook mean for China? Jenny Li Jie argues that the terms of any re-entry would make the social media giant unlikely to erode political stability.

Recently, news spread that the world’s largest social network platform, Facebook, was secretly developing a censorship tool so as to enter the Chinese market. Facebook was banned by the Chinese government in 2009 when a group of separatists in Xinjiang Province used the platform to organise anti-regime riots. Fearful of the infiltration of Western liberal democratic values, the Chinese government deemed Facebook harmful to political stability given its unregulated information flow. Chinese leaders became even more vigilant after the Arab Spring revolutionary wave swept the Middle East in 2011, during which Facebook served as a major communications tool to mobilise insurgents and coordinate the rebellious movement.

However, not every foreign social media channel is banned in China. LinkedIn and WhatsApp are permitted because they follow China’s Internet management laws and regulations, and accept censorship from the government. Politically sensitive information cannot circulate on either one.

If Facebook enters China, it will have to accept the same prerequisite, even though this appears to contradict Facebook’s core value of “giving people the power to share and making the world more open and connected”. However, given a market size of some 0.71 billion Internet users, China is a lucrative market. Whether Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg can re-enter the Chinese market depends on the extent to which he is willing to compromise on this core value.

What would the transformative impact be on Chinese society should Facebook successfully enter the country?

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Undoubtedly, Facebook would add a new dimension to China’s integration into the world. With the help of Facebook, Chinese netizens could add anyone from across the globe as their friends, chat with them and discuss a variety of issues, improving their knowledge of how people from other countries with different cultural and religious backgrounds think and behave. This direct and interactive communication with others in a virtual space would give Chinese netizens an unprecedentedly novel experience of being connected with the wider world. Such an experience would be dramatically different from that provided by traditional media sources such as television or newspapers, where the framing of a story can be selected and biased.

Will this new dimension empower Chinese citizens and make an impact on Chinese society and politics? If so, to what degree? In academic circles, the impact of social media on citizens’ political participation has been widely discussed. Many argue that with easier access to news about current international issues and a reinforced capacity to communicate directly with each other, people shape new forms of political activities to put pressure on policymakers. This can build tremendous momentum for political reform or even regime change.

In democratic countries, both Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election are good examples from this year of how social media sites such as Facebook empower grassroots movements and help them acquire a larger political participation. In non-democratic regimes, the Arab Spring case demonstrates the might of Facebook in coordinating and mobilising people to appeal for democracy or even overthrow an authoritarian regime.

Following this line of reasoning, one can envision the contribution Facebook could make to the democratisation of China. However, I would argue that Facebook’s impact in this regard will be limited for three important reasons.

First, information circulating on Facebook in China would be under the control of Chinese government. A precondition for Facebook’s entry into the Chinese market is an agreement to abide by Chinese rules and regulations on Internet management. It has been reported that Facebook will set up a server in mainland China to store Chinese users’ personal data, and the newly developed censorship tool will automatically filter sensitive posts and news, ensuring that the web pages appearing in front of Chinese users are “politically benign and appropriate.”

Technically speaking, this functionality is not difficult to realise. China has its own social media platforms, such as Weibo and WeChat, where people can freely share information and express views as long as they do not damage the political system. It is highly likely that Facebook will have to follow suit.

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Second, Chinese netizens’ perceptions of Western liberal democratic values are changing. The majority of Facebook’s potential users in China would be people under 45 years of age with higher education degrees. These people are better educated and are able to think critically, and their opinions of Western values are evolving. Back in the 1980s, young Chinese people were enamoured of Western democracy, having seen for the first time how prosperous and civilised the developed democratic countries were. However, after 30 years of development, people in China’s rising economy have reason to believe they can also achieve prosperity their way.

Third, the Chinese government has become more responsive to peoples’ needs and more adept and efficient in social management. The Chinese Communist Party has a tenet of “keeping pace with the times” (与时俱进) and has transformed itself from a hard authoritarian regime to a softer one. All levels of government are, at the same time, making an effort to equip themselves with novel Internet technologies. For example, under the fashion of “e-governance” almost all county-level governments and above have established their own websites. These websites not only keep the public informed of government affairs but, more importantly, are tools to receive feedback, complaints and grievances from citizens, enabling governments to improve themselves in direct accordance with peoples’ demands.

In the social media era, Chinese governments also maintain public accounts on the home-grown Weibo and WeChat apps. The interactive features of these platforms have on the one hand provided governments with a better channel for political indoctrination, and on the other made them look much more approachable and responsive. If Facebook enters China and gains popularity among Chinese netizens, all levels of the Chinese government will unquestionably take advantage of this new platform to enhance their legitimacy.

Fundamentally therefore, Facebook would make China more connected to the outside world, but would not damage its political stability. Chinese people are eager to be connected to the world, and hopefully Facebook will open a new window and bring in more fresh air.

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Li, Jie. 2017. "Updating Facebook’S China Status - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.