One of the downsides of living up here is the slow and heavily-censored internet. Unless you have a VPN, sites like Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook are all blocked. LinkedIn and Google/Gmail also have their moments.
The blocking of social networking sites began around the time of the riots in Urumqi in 2009. Those holed up in Zhongnanhai figured Twitter was a key tool leading to the revolt in Tehran that year, and it was too risky to hand that tool to the angry masses in Xinjiang. China has been proven correct on its fears: this year Facebook and Twitter have both been key communications and information tools in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria.
Facebook probably never intended itself to be a political tool, but it certainly makes a good one. That aside, it remains focused on growing the already largest social network in the world, and China remains a big black hole. China has more people online than any other country, yet is an area that Facebook has been unable to penetrate due to restrictions on its service here and hot local social networking sites such as Ren Ren Wang and Kaixing Wang, not to mention Sina Weibo (which is more akin to Twitter).
But it won’t give up. Mark Zuckerberg, who has a Chinese girlfriend and is learning Putonghua, toured China last year and met with executives of Baidu, China’s leading search engine. That could have been a catalyst for this deal (courtesy of Bloomberg):
Facebook Inc. has signed an agreement with Baidu Inc. to set up a social-networking website in China, Sohu.com reported, citing unidentified employees at the Chinese search-engine company.
The agreement followed several meetings between Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and Baidu CEO Robin Li, Sohu.com reported on its website today. The China website won’t be integrated with Facebook’s international service, and the start date is not confirmed, according to the report.
Some analysts have already said, if this new site is not integrated with Facebook’s global network, they’ll have a hard time competing with the established players (mentioned above).
Where does that leave us? Well, considering the Jasmine Revolutions and high inflation in China, the authentic Facebook won’t be made available here anytime soon. And if you can read Chinese, chances are your Chinese friends are already on Renren or Kaixin. So for your typical expatriate who wants to use a social network, the options are learn to read Chinese or use a VPN.
And on that note, if you need VPN advice, check out our earlier article on the topic.