There Mark Zuckerberg goes again, showing off his Chinese-speaking skills.
The Facebook CEO — whose product is still blocked by Chinese censors — has been studying the language for about five years now, perhaps in the hope of boosting his company’s business prospects on the mainland.
This past weekend, he gave a 22-minute speech at Tsinghua University in Beijing entirely in Mandarin Chinese. Non-Chinese-speakers were given simultaneous translation headsets to understand. This outing comes after Zuckerberg tried out his Mandarin on Chinese President Xi Jinping recently, and delivered some other remarks in Mandarin at Tsinghua last year.
Zuckerberg’s relentless China charm offensive has also included hosting China’s Internet czar at Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters last year, and leaving a copy of Xi’s collected writings in prominent view. A state-run news outlet in China later reported that Zuckerberg told the official, Lu Wei, about the book: “I want my colleagues to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics.” (That’s Communist party-speak for China’s blend of capitalism and authoritarianism.)
Zuckerberg joined the board of Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management a year ago and was participating in a student dialogue with board members. His remarks dealt with the subjects of mission, caring and thinking ahead.
“This was also my first real speech in any language sharing how I started thinking about Facebook’s mission, what has kept me going through challenging times and what our mission means now looking ahead for our community of 1.5 billion people,” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page. The Chinese market could easily be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Facebook.
Many native-English speakers appear impressed with Zuckerberg’s pursuit of Chinese, though native-Mandarin speakers say he still has a ways to go, particularly on pronunciation.
“This is great. When you use another language to reach a new audience, it helps ideas to transcend cultural boundaries in a way that a translation tends not to do,” wrote one Facebook user, Christa J. Laser. “Very admirable!”
Said another, Justin Codero: “Mark Zuckerberg speaks Mandarin Chinese as a second language better than some Americans speak their native English.”
But one commenter on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social-media platform, said: “Thank God I’m bilingual, so when I failed to understand his Chinese I could read the English subtitles!”
Another wrote: “It took me a while to understand his ‘ren’ (Chinese for ‘people’) and ‘shi ming’ (Chinese for mission). His Chinese sounds like a foreign language!”
While a number of high-profile Chinese CEOs such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Sohu’s Charles Zhang speak fluent English, Zuckerberg’s pursuit of Chinese highlights the dearth of Mandarin-speaking U.S. business titans. The language is considered difficult because it has so many written characters, and because it relies in part on rising and falling tones that can change the meaning of words.
Facebook is blocked in China — along with Twitter, Google and scores of other foreign websites Chinese authorities object to, though many people use VPN software to get around the blockages. Still, it wasn’t clear how many people in Zuckerberg’s audience were Facebook users.
Although Zuckerberg still gets tones incorrect and pauses in awkward places, his speaking ability has improved significantly compared with his Q&A session at the same university almost a year ago. His vocabulary and grammar have advanced, along with his ability to add idioms that generated several rounds of applause.
He employed popular Chinese proverbs such as, “If you work at it hard enough, you can grind an iron bar into a needle,” which means that if you work hard enough, you can make the impossible possible. That could be Zuckerberg’s attitude toward cracking the Chinese market.
Zuckerberg met Xi, the Chinese president, in Seattle this past September at a confab with U.S. tech executives. He spoke to Xi for about a minute. “On a personal note, this was the first time I’ve ever spoken with a world leader entirely in a foreign language. I consider that a meaningful personal milestone,” he said in a message on Facebook.
Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, is of Chinese descent; Zuckerberg has said that part of his motivation for studying Mandarin is also to communicate with her elder family members. The couple is expecting a baby shortly, and Zuckerberg was said to have asked Xi at the White House to suggest a name for his child (a request the Chinese president reportedly refused).
Some Chinese “netizens” suggested learning a second language might be a smart soft approach for business leaders. “Zuckerberg might have set a new model for CEOs of other companies that cannot operate in China,” wrote one Weibo user. “ What are you waiting for, the CEO of Google?”