Mark Zuckerberg caused quite some controversy when plans emerged to censor Facebook to facilitate a possible return for the company to China again. Whether you agree or disagree, the way China censors the internet is more than just blocking a few Western sites, and will not go away, says internet expert Kaiser Kuo in ChinaFile.
Given China’s increasingly strict Internet censorship, it should surprise no one that any re-entry by Facebook would be conditional not only on the company’s acquiescing to censorship, but on its demonstrating the ability to carry it out to Beijing’s satisfaction. Equally if not even more troubling would be the requirement, all but inevitable, that Facebook store Chinese user data on servers in China, making that data accessible to Chinese courts and law enforcement. Even if Beijing deigns to allow Facebook a presence in China, Facebook will face a firestorm of criticism from human rights and data privacy activists.
It will defend its decision by invoking the same logic that American proponents of engagement have always deployed. Some connectivity is surely better than none, which is essentially what Facebook has today: a tiny, inconsequential handful of China’s over 700 million Internet users are regular users of platforms like Facebook or Twitter. Facebook probably won’t make its case by suggesting that connecting China will bring about political change; it was, after all, suspicion of that sort of thing that got them blocked in the first place. They may instead point to the inherent good in connectedness, and note the evil—mistrust and misunderstanding—that arises in its absence. All this justifies compromise.
Google faced a similar dilemma when it decided to enter China in early 2006. But the moral calculus has shifted in the intervening 11 years. Google may have been viewed with suspicion even then, but now—after various Color Revolutions and Arab Spring uprisings with the names of American Internet properties conveniently appended to them by the American media—Beijing will exact far greater compromise. China blocks far more foreign websites, and blocks them more aggressively, than it did then. Chinese users have excellent alternatives: social media platforms where their friends already are. They aren’t clamoring for Facebook, and those who want it have little trouble hopping the Great Firewall to get to it: nationalists bent on trolling pro-independence Taiwanese celebs hopped the wall in droves this past summer, after all. So Facebook has little leverage to speak of; it will play by Beijing’s rules or not at all.
Indeed, Facebook’s only real card is the public relations value to Beijing of letting the company in: “See? All that nonsense about censorship was clearly overblown.”
But it’s not. One of the regrettable effects of our use of the “Great Firewall” as a metonym for Chinese Internet censorship is that too many people equate censorship with the blocking of sites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In fact, the censorship of domestic Chinese sites is far more onerous, and impacts a far greater number of users. That won’t change with a Facebook entry.
Whatever your posture toward Facebook for its willingness to compromise on freedom of expression in the name of engagement and greater global connectivity, the unblocking of Facebook to users in the People’s Republic of China, should it come to pass, must not be construed in any way as a loosening of censorship.
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