Facebook has been blocked by Chinese authorities for over five years, but company founder Mark Zuckerberg appears to be on a new charm offensive to crack the massive market. In a move that has sent tongues wagging across China and around the globe, Zuckerberg on Wednesday showed off his nascent Chinese-language skills in Beijing by participating in a 30-minute question-and-answer session conducted entirely in Mandarin.
Speaking to a group of students at the prestigious Tsinghua University, Zuckerberg opened his remarks by greeting everyone in Mandarin with "Dajia hao," ("Hello everyone"). The audience exploded with claps and cheers even before he could finish.
"My Chinese is very bad, but I'll try to use Chinese today," the 30-year-old billionaire said.
"Mark, everyone is very shocked that you can speak Chinese," said the host, who introduced Zuckerberg in English. "Can you tell us why you wanted to learn Chinese?"
Zuckerberg responded in a form familiar to many Chinese officials, who like to use "first, second and third" when talking to the public. "First, my wife is Chinese. Her family speaks Chinese and her grandma only speaks Chinese. I wanted to communicate with them," he said. "When Priscilla and I decided to get married, I told her grandma our decision in Chinese. She was really shocked."
In 2010, Zuckerberg announced on his Facebook page that learning Mandarin was his personal challenge for the year.
Several news accounts at the time said he took morning lessons at his kitchen table with a tutor. Zuckerberg's wife, Priscilla Chan, whom he met at Harvard University and married in 2012, grew up in the United States as the daughter of immigrants and spoke Cantonese at home.
During the Q&A session, Zuckerberg said that language is the best way to understand another culture and that he wants to know more about the Chinese culture. And, he said, he loves the challenge of learning a tongue as difficult as Mandarin, a tonal language.
Though Zuckerberg struggled at times to find the precise words to express himself and frequently bungled his tones, he was able to get his points across to the audience, which cheered him repeatedly.
He talked about Facebook's plans to hire more students from China next year and said he had eaten dinner the night before with Lei Jun, chief executive of fast-growing Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi.
When asked about Facebook's plans in China, Zuckerberg said the company already has a presence in the country, focused on helping Chinese companies grow in the international market through advertising on the social networking site. And, he said, he's also looking to work with more Chinese cities to help them launch introductory pages on Facebook.
But Zuckerberg didn't touch the most sensitive and most pressing topic: whether Facebook's service would be available in China someday. Facebook has been blocked since July 2009, when a violent riot in western China's Xinjiang province killed almost 200 people. China's Communist Party authorities said rioters had used foreign social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter to organize their attack; Twitter is also blocked in mainland China.
As the role of Twitter, Facebook and other Western social media services in drawing together demonstrators during the Arab Spring became clear, Chinese authorities clamped down even harder on such services, tightening their grip on social media websites run by domestic companies, including Sina and Tencent.
In addition to machine-based censoring, such as blocking of keywords, thousands of human censors are deployed in China each day to filter and delete content deemed "dangerous or harmful" on Chinese social media services such as Weibo and WeChat. During the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the Chinese government blocked Instagram, the photo-sharing service owned by Facebook that had been available here.
Although Zuckerberg was not pressed for details on whether the Facebook block may ever be lifted, his visit to China is just the latest sign that the company is working toward bolstering its presence in the Chinese market and finding new opportunities here.
In July, Bloomberg News reported that Facebook signed a three-year lease last spring to rent more than 8,600 square feet of office space in Beijing's central business district. This week, Zuckerberg was named a board member of China's top business school, Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, the scene of the Q&A session.
Zuckerberg joined the board along with IBM Chief Executive Virginia Rometty and Carlos Brito, chief executive of Anheuser-Busch InBev. Given that the business school board has extensive connections to China's central government and serves as a network and meeting ground for influential policymakers and international businesspeople, Zuckerberg may find the role useful for finding new avenues to discuss his company's access to the Chinese market.
As of September, the number of Internet users in China has topped 1 billion, government data show, and 870 million access the Web on mobile devices. Major American technology companies such as Facebook and Apple are desperately trying to strengthen their foothold in the massive market.
Zuckerberg's visit to the Middle Kingdom this week coincides with a China "road trip" by Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook, who met with Chinese deputy prime minister Ma Kai on Wednesday in Beijing at the Zhongnanhai government headquarters compound. Among the topics the two covered was user data security, the official New China News Agency reported.
Cook's visit came in a week when Chinese users of Apple's iCloud service reportedly faced man-in-the-middle attacks through a fake certificate. Technical analysis by Internet security experts suggested that the attack originated from China.
Video clips of Zuckerberg's talk made big headlines in China and circulated widely on services such as WeChat. But some Chinese Internet users expressed frustration over all the ballyhoo concerning Zuckerberg -- given that Facebook remains essentially invisible to anyone in mainland China who doesn't use VPN software to scale the country's so-called Great Firewall.
"Tsinghua University is really special. They invited the CEO of a website that doesn't even exist on earth to give a speech and speak Mandarin with Shandong accent," said one commenter on Weibo who writes under the name Queenkrule.
Others noted that Zuckerberg himself must use VPN while in China, because he was able to upload a video of his Tsinghua session to his account.
"When he finished the Q&A, Zuckerberg scaled China's Great Firewall secretly and posted the video of on his Facebook page," Zhuang Xiaopi, a Weibo user from Fujian, noted on his account.