Zuckerberg braves Beijing smog for a jog as his China charm offensive continues

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg (gray shirt) runs past Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on March 18.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg (gray shirt) runs past Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on March 18.

(Facebook / AFP/Getty Images)

He’s spent years studying Chinese. He’s hosted China’s cyberspace czar at his office, and encouraged employees to read President Xi Jinping’s book “The Governance of China.” Now Facebook supremo Mark Zuckerberg – whose social network is still blocked by the Great Firewall – has gone yet another mile in his ceaseless courtship of China: He’s gone jogging through Beijing’s Tiananmen Square during a yellow-level smog alert.

On Friday morning Beijing time, when the Air Quality Index had soared over 350, deep into “hazardous” territory, Zuckerberg posted a message on his Facebook account saying he had just jogged through Tiananmen Square. The accompanying photo showed Zuckerberg to be without a protective face mask. “It’s great to be back in Beijing!” he wrote, noting that he’s logged 100 miles of jogging so far in 2016.

The post immediately attracted both praise and derision on Facebook as well as other social media. Some critics snidely wondered how Zuckerberg was able to even post such a message, given that his site is blocked in the country.

“How can you use fb in China? It is forbidden by the government,” asked Yiu Sing Lee. (Zuckerberg, like many Facebookers in China, probably used VPN or similar software to access his own site.)

Others expressed concern that Zuckerberg was harming his health by running in such conditions. “Hey Welcome to Beijing. I don't understand why you would do something like this to yourself ... The AQI in Beijing is like 300 now,” wrote another user, Shuo Wang. “You know the damage to your lung is permanent and could be detrimental right ... If you need an air purifier let me know.”

Still others rapped Zuckerberg on political grounds. A student at the University of Macau left him a message saying “the [ground] you stepped has been covered by blood from students who fought for democracy. But, enjoy your running in China, Mark.”

But Zuckerberg had his defenders too.

“I'm quite sure that Mr. Zuckerberg … is totally aware of what happened there in 1989,” wrote Hugo Wang. “However, he's not cowardly sitting by a screen typing useless words but trying his best to change this world by working very hard.”

In some ways, Zuckerberg seemed to be taking a page out of Xi’s own playbook. In February 2014, the Chinese president made a pop-up appearance in central Beijing on a particularly smoggy day.

He visited a traditional hutong neighborhood with Mayor Wang Anshun and the city’s Communist Party chief, Guo Jinlong. The event quickly was splashed across the Chinese Internet, with some official news sites pointing to Xi’s uncovered face as proof of his solidarity with the people.

“Share the same breath, share the same destiny,” remarked the official feed of the People’s Daily newspaper on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service.

Zuckerberg joined the board of Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in 2014. In October last year, he gave a 22-minute speech at Tsinghua entirely in Mandarin.

Zuckerberg’s Friday jog around Tiananmen quickly became one of the top-10 most discussed topics on Weibo.

Some Chinese netizens even suggested that Zuckerberg be nominated for a campaign currently being run by the state-run China Daily newspaper, asking for readers to nominate “warm-hearted foreign friends” who are “sharing positive energy” in the spirit of Lei Feng.

The state-run newspaper China Daily wants foreigners to share "positive energy." Some Chinese Internet users have suggested nominating Mark Zuckerberg for the campaign.

The state-run newspaper China Daily wants foreigners to share “positive energy.” Some Chinese Internet users have suggested nominating Mark Zuckerberg for the campaign.

(China Daily )

(Lei was an army truck driver whom Chairman Mao chose in 1963 as a role model for the people. Although he was accidentally killed by a falling telephone pole in 1962, even today he is portrayed as the embodiment of the selfless individual serving his comrades and his leader, and even went so far as to wash his comrades' socks.)

The Chinese market could easily be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Facebook, but Chinese authorities have blocked the site for years out of concerns that it could be used to organize anti-government protests.

Zuckerberg met Xi in Seattle this past September at a confab with U.S. tech executives. “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 at the time in a message on Facebook.

Zuckerberg's wife, Priscilla Chan, is of Chinese descent; he has said that part of his motivation for studying Mandarin is also to communicate with her elder family members. The couple recently had a daughter, Maxima, and gave her a Chinese name, Chen Mingyu.

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