Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg isn't just learning to speak Mandarin Chinese. He also seems to want the gatekeepers of China's Internet to know he's learning about their governing philosophy -- and even may be spreading it.
Lu Wei, the Chinese Internet czar who heads a censorship system that keeps many popular American sites -- including, of course, Facebook -- out of China, was touring American tech companies recently. Chinese media reported that when he arrived at Zuckerberg's desk, he just happened to find a copy of Chinese President Xi Jinping's tome The Governance of China.
State-run Chinese media reported that Zuckerberg told Lu: "I bought [The Governance of China by President Xi Jinping] for my co-workers also. I want them to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics."
"Socialism with Chinese characteristics" is the official description of the unique blend of state capitalism and one-Party politics that China practices. The phrase is littered throughout state propaganda banners and official speeches, but not often used in everyday conversation.
Facebook did not respond immediately to requests for confirmation of Chinese media's account of Zuckerberg's comments.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, most Google products and thousands of other websites are blocked in mainland China under a sophisticated system of Internet controls put in place by the Chinese government. Downloading special software can help Chinese users get around those controls -- which are often referred to as the "Great Firewall" -- but they’ve still cost U.S. tech companies huge sums of potential revenue, and in the past have contributed to major tensions between Silicon Valley and the Chinese government.
But in recent months several firms have been putting out feelers toward Chinese markets. Google reportedly is bringing its app store to China, Facebook is preparing to open sales offices in Beijing for Chinese companies targeting oversees buyers, and Twitter is doing the same in Hong Kong.
Zuckerberg's latest play for the hearts and minds of Chinese officialdom comes just weeks after he pulled off a far more labor-intensive and impressive move: delivering an entire speech in choppy but intelligible Mandarin Chinese. Coming out of nowhere, the Zuckerberg speech won huge praise from many Chinese (along with some petty criticism from U.S. media). The Facebook CEO said he has been studying the language in order to communicate with his in-laws, but it also happens to be a huge publicity coup and show of respect toward Chinese officials who hold the keys to the world's largest market of Internet users.
Pictures in the Chinese press showed Lu exchanging laughs with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Lu reportedly held with meetings at Microsoft and the Silicon Valley offices of the Chinese search engine Baidu. Amazon has been striving to expand its share of e-commerce markets in China. Apple products have been a darling of wealthy Chinese for years, but in recent years have been hit with scathing criticism from state media outlets that accused Apple of discriminatory warranty policies.
After years of quietly blocking key U.S. social media sites, China has become more proactive in setting forth a vision for the Internet, one in which countries mutually respect each other's "sovereignty" over Internet matters. That language met significant resistance from Western firms and policymakers at a recent China-sponsored Internet conference.
But with Edward Snowden's revelations about U.S. cyber-spying undermining American credibility in that area, and with the allure of China's 600-million-plus Internet users proving irresistible to U.S. companies, Chinese leaders appear to be growing much more confident advocating their vision of an Internet divided by national boundaries.
Policy preferences and cultural chasms between Silicon Valley and Beijing remain enormous, but for now at least everyone involved seems inclined to laugh it off and hug it out.