If Facebook is to realise CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s dream of reaching all 7 billion humans on planet earth, then it will need to expand in China, where more than 1.3 billion people live.
So when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg went to China and visited the Chinese government’s State Council Information Office — the government agency in charge of censoring the internet — the subtext was obvious: “Please unblock Facebook in China.”
Sandberg also went to promote her book, Lean In. At a speech for the tome, she praised China’s leadership — and said that the country needed to “change,” perhaps to become a bit more flexible in terms of free speech, according to Bloomberg:
“I believe the time is right for change,” said Sandberg, 44, who joined Facebook in 2008. “I believe that China can lead. It is not just the sheer size of the country or your population. It’s not just your unbelievable economic growth that is the envy of the world. It’s that this society has very deep, deep roots. Parents invest in children. This is a country that understands that change needs to happen to make things better for the next generation.”
At no time during her presentation did Sandberg address China’s censorship or the outlook for Facebook in the world’s largest Internet market.
She refused to take questions from the press, too.
Bloomberg reported that Sandberg had some closed-door talks with the Chinese government. They appear to be aimed at persuading China that Facebook is a harmless advertising platform for Chinese exporters, the Wall Street Journal speculated:
Most likely, the meeting is less about the potential of Facebook to open up in China and more an acknowledgment that the American Internet giant’s business here increasingly resembles that of Google Inc. which makes the bulk of its money in the country helping Chinese businesses advertise in foreign markets.
Hopefully, the Chinese will agree. But don’t count on it. Memories are long in the Chinese government. They will still be thinking of the role Facebook played in the recent Arab uprisings in the Middle East, and whether social media might precipitate another Tiananmen Square uprising in China itself.
Disclosure: The author owns Facebook stock.