‘Facebook is a proudly American company,” Mark Zuckerberg said last week, appearing with the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, and Google before the House of Representatives subcommittee tasked with examining competition policy. The CEOs fielded questions from members of Congress on a range of issues beyond antitrust enforcement. When the discussion turned to China, Zuckerberg was alone among his Big Tech colleagues in speaking up against the Chinese Communist Party’s threat to Internet freedom. During his opening remarks, he positioned his company as a staunch defender of American values against an alternative Chinese model that flagrantly disregards free expression. And later, when each of the four executives was asked if the Chinese government steals technology from firms in the United States, only Zuckerberg said that the phenomenon is “well-documented.” The others deflected.
Zuckerberg’s comments were consistent with an apparent change in his thinking over the past year or so, which has seen Facebook’s previous courtship of the CCP end. In a 2019 speech at Georgetown University, he said that while he wanted to connect China with the rest of the world, the CCP’s refusal to play ball had given Facebook “more freedom to speak out and stand up for the values we believe in and fight for free expression around the world.” But it must be noted that Zuckerberg’s shift in stance has mirrored the recent shift in American public opinion, and it is certainly not lost on him that the CCP has of late become the focus of intense bipartisan scorn. In his remarks, he was reprising a politically convenient position that Facebook seems to have adopted as top Democrats have ramped up their criticism of the company’s content-moderation policies and allegedly anti-competitive practices.
What’s more, the history of Facebook’s relationship with China is more complicated than Zuckerberg’s recent messaging would suggest. The social network was not always blocked in China, and it spent much of the past decade attempting to regain the access to the country that it lost in 2009, following a revolt in the far-Western city of Urumqi. The uprising marked a turning point in Beijing’s campaign of human-rights violations in the Xinjiang region. It also led to a country-wide ban on Facebook, Twitter, and Google products. (Today, the only way to access Facebook in China is through use of a VPN.)
In the years after the ban was enacted, Facebook attempted to place itself in the good graces of Chinese officials and win back access to the market. Zuckerberg surely knew that the CCP would demand control over what users posted in exchange for letting Facebook back in. But at the time, Facebook seemed to prioritize its business interests over such concerns. Zuckerberg joined the board of Beijing’s Tsinghua University, delivering a speech there in 2014. Two months later, Lu Wei, the Chinese official tasked with overseeing Internet censorship, visited Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley. A photo of Zuckerberg from the meeting showed that on his desk he had a copy of The Governance of China, a collection of speeches by CCP general secretary Xi Jinping. “I’ve also bought copies of this book for my colleagues,” he reportedly said. “I want them to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
American attitudes toward China had not yet reached their nadir at that point. While Xi’s grip on the institutions of party and state power in China had grown tighter in the years since his ascension to power in 2013, Beijing was not at the time recognized as a chief U.S. adversary the way it is today. Still, Zuckerberg was clearly attempting to woo top officials from an authoritarian country already seen as responsible for significant human-rights abuses and curtailments of political freedom.
Of course, there’s no reason to believe that Zuckerberg held any particular ideological sympathies with the CCP. As an American executive pursuing one of the largest markets in the world, it seems that he did what he thought he needed to in order to grow his company. At that point, Hong Kong was more or less autonomous, repression in China’s far West did not rise to the level of today’s mass atrocities, and elite consensus in the United States held that China sought regional, rather than global, dominance. But the signs were already there, for those willing to look: By the time Xi visited the United States in September 2015, Chinese authorities were raiding the offices of prominent NGOs, cracking down on dissidents, and targeting religious minorities with new vigor.
Over the next few years, despite these red flags, Zuckerberg undertook a number of other efforts to get Facebook back into China. In 2016, he posted a picture on his Facebook account from Tiananmen Square, and was roundly criticized for neglecting to mention the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators there. On the same 2016 trip, he met with the CCP’s top propaganda official, and a year later, he and Apple CEO Tim Cook met Xi during a gathering of tech executives. These efforts did yield some fruit, if only temporarily. There was a brief glimmer of hope for Facebook’s prospects in China in 2018, when it announced plans to establish an “innovation hub” in Hangzhou with the stated goal of assisting Chinese startups, only for the initiative to be quickly scrapped by the Chinese government. But for the most part, Facebook was forced to settle for doing business with Chinese companies outside China, which has been plenty lucrative on its own. To this day, Facebook makes billions of dollars in advertising from such companies, and may possibly be sharing user data with them. In 2018, the New York Times reported that Facebook had a data-sharing partnership with Huawei.
In light of this complicated history, it’s fair to wonder how one should interpret Zuckerberg’s remarks to Congress. One school of thought holds that he has come around to the view that the CCP poses a unique threat to political expression and now sees the restrictions demanded by Beijing as an unacceptable price of doing business in China. Another holds that Facebook executives see absolutely no path forward into the Chinese market, and think that the smart move is to play to the concerns of America lawmakers, many of whom are already skeptical of Chinese technology.
Which is closer to the truth? In a certain sense, it doesn’t matter. Whether Zuckerberg is merely trying to ingratiate his company with lawmakers or he’s genuinely alarmed by the Chinese threat to free expression, his turn against the CCP can only be a positive development for the tech industry — provided it’s backed up with concrete action.