Facebook Plans China Presence, Despite Ban

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Despite its social networking site being blocked in China, Facebook plans “innovation hub” for that country

Facebook is to open an office in China, despite the fact that its website remains blocked as a result of the country’s strict censorship laws.

Yet that block has not stopped Facebook securing a licence to open “innovation hub to support Chinese developers, innovators and start-ups.”

CEO Mark Zuckerburg has made no secret of his desire for Facebook to be able to operate in China. He has visited China on a number of occasions, lobbied local politicians and met president Xi Jinping, and can even speak Mandarin. And of course he married his Chinese wife Priscilla Chang in 2012.

Innovation hub

Despite this Facebook has remained stubbornly blocked in China ever since riots in July 2009, where Xinjiang independence activists reportedly used Facebook as part of their communications network.

But Facebook is undeterred and is to register a subsidiary Hangzhou, according to a filing approved on China’s National Enterprise Credit Information Publicity System last week, and spotted by Reuters.

The filing listed only one shareholder of the new entity, namely Facebook Hongkong Ltd.

“We are interested in setting up an innovation hub in Zhejiang to support Chinese developers, innovators and start-ups,” a Facebook representative told Reuters via email, referring to the Chinese province where Hangzhou is located.

The spokesperson also pointed out that Facebook has created similar hubs in France, Brazil, India and Korea to focus on training and workshops.

Setting up a company-owned enterprise in China does not mean Facebook is changing its approach in the country, the company reportedly said, adding that it was still learning what it takes to be in China.

Great firewall

Indeed, Facebook is facing real challenges if it hopes to enter that potentially lucrative market.

Last year Facebook’s messaging app WhatsApp was blocked, and it has remained mostly unavailable ever since in that country.

China of course is widely considered to have one of the most repressive Internet censorship schemes designed to prevent criticism of the ruling Communist Party and suppress dissent and other information deemed to be dangerous.

Only approved content is allowed behind the so called “Great Firewall” of China for its 650 million Internet users.

Repressive regime

And restrictions have increased under the reign of Chinese president Xi Jinping who came to power in 2013. In 2015 for example he passed a law establishing “cybersovereignty,” and has made retweets of rumours a crime.

Of course, other websites such as Twitter and Google also continue to be banned in China, but these firms are seeking other ways to establish a beachhead in that country.

Google for example has several hundred staff in China and in December 2017 launched its own artificial intelligence (AI) lab there.

It has also tentatively launched several apps for the Chinese market.

Apple has also has a number of ‘R&D centres’ in China, and has heavily modified its app store to accomodate Chinese censorship restrictions. This has seen it remove hundreds of apps at the request of Chinese regulators.

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