For years, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been working diligently to court Chinese regulators to open the country’s door for Facebook. To show his sincerity, Zuckerberg has gone to such lengths as picking up Mandarin, visiting China seven times in five years, and literally leading a run in front of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square (in 2016). And yet, his business efforts have never followed through.
But none of that matters now. After everything that has happened, the Facebook chief has decided that Facebook doesn’t operate in China—not because it’s not allowed to, but because he doesn’t want it to.
In a public address about freedom of speech on Facebook at Georgetown University on Thursday, Zuckerberg identified anti-freedom regimes, like that of China, as one of the main threats to spreading American values to the future global internet.
“China is building its own internet focused on very different values [than that of the U.S.]. And now it’s exporting their vision for the internet to other countries,” Zuckerberg warned.
“Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values… A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top 10 are Chinese,” the Facebook CEO explained to his audience. “We are beginning to see this in social media, too. While our services like WhatsApp are used by protests and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these same protests are censored, even here in the U.S.”
“Is that the internet that we want?” he added passionately. “This is one of the reasons we don’t operate Facebook, Instagram or any of our other services in China.”
After a flashing moment of awkwardness in the room, Zuckerberg walked back his rhetoric a few steps and contended that he had wanted Facebook to have a presence in China, “because I believe in connecting the whole world, and I thought maybe we could help create a more open society.”
“But we could never come to an agreement on what it will take for us to operate there. And they never let us in,” he said.
However, while none of Facebook’s consumer-facing platforms are available in China, the company has tangled ties with businesses in the country through other channels that have generated billions of dollars in revenue.
According to a New York Times investigation in June last year, Facebook had data-sharing agreements with at least four Chinese tech firms, including Huawei, the No. 1 national security threat on Washington’s watch list, since at least 2010.
Facebook severed ties with Huawei following the exposè, but maintained the other three contracts with Lenovo, Oppo and TCL.
A separate Times report in February revealed that Facebook also plowed advertising dollars from China. Through a local agency, the tech giant would put up about 20,000 ads for Chinese companies each day, helping them reach its 2.3 billion users globally. These advertising clients contributed $5 billion in revenue to Facebook in 2018, according to the report, about 10% of Facebook’s global sales.