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Is Facebook Trying to Re-enter China?

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has come back to China. Several local journalists and netizens spotted him and his girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, in Shanghai last Tuesday, March 27, and once more, rumors spread like fire through the Internet: Is the king of social media working on its reappearance in China?

Although Zuckerberg alleged it was just a vacation trip, netizens in China and worldwide have their doubts.

Star Chan, from the M.I.C. Gadget blog, posted on Tuesday:

This afternoon, some Chinese paparazzi spotted Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his Chinese fiancée in Shanghai, so Mark Zuckerberg has came back to China again! Holiday tour or business trip? According to inside rumor, Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook (yeah! Cook is also in China!) have flown together with a private jet on their trip to China.

Access to Facebook has been banned in China since mid-2009, when the country's authorities concluded that people participating in the riots that took place in the western province of Xinjiang had used the social network to organize the protests.

In February, however, Facebook revealed it was studying the possibility of re-opening in China, the world's largest Internet market, and now Zuckerberg has visited the country officially “on vacation”.

Other blogs, like Shangaiist, Ministry of Tofu and TechNode, have also discussed Zuckerberg's visit.

Gang Lu, at TechNode, wrote:

This is really interesting. Two great guys, representing two hottest tech companies of the world. Both visit China at the same time. One in Beijing, the other in Shanghai; One for business, the other is for vacation; One is the first time in China, the other is at his second trip and even understands a bit of Chinese; One is growing its business amazingly fast in China, the other has almost conquered the entire cyber world but is still not available in China. But I bet there is only one keyword in their mind right now, which is: China, China!

On Wednesday, Liu Kun [zh], PopCap Games [zh] manager in China, said on Chinese social network Sina Weibo that he had spotted Zuckerberg in Beijing and his activities there did not make think of vacations:

Mark Zuckerberg spotted in Beijing. Photo by Liu Kun

@Liu KunFacebook CEO 马克.扎克伯格!他离我仅3米的距离。现场实拍。Mark Elliot Zuckerberg!他来北京是解决VPN么?@李菁rekin9 @植物大战僵尸 @赵迅PopCap @ANDY田行智 @蒋涛CSDN @龙伟-大众点评 @宋炜

@Liu KunFacebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg! He is just 3 meters away from me. Photo from the scene. Mark Elliot Zuckerberg! Does he come to Beijing to solve the VPN problem? [Asking]: @李菁rekin9 @植物大战僵尸 @赵迅PopCap@ANDY田行智 @蒋涛CSDN @龙伟-大众点评 @宋炜

Zuckerberg's last visit to China took place in December 2010 and was also billed as a vacation trip, despite that he paid several visits to top Chinese Internet companies such as Baidu, Sina and Alibaba.

The possibility of seeing Facebook unblocked has boosted the hopes of those who want to see social and political change in the Asian giant. There is a widely held idea that social media–both local and global–can give the Chinese people the power that the Chinese Communist Party denies them. Local social media are already challenging the government's controls on information, and many Chinese netizens are eager to access global social networks. Zuckerberg himself has stated that Facebook can be an agent of change in China, like it has been in Egypt or Tunisia.

Alec Ross, US Secretary of State Senior Advisor for Innovation, spoke about China at a speech at the University of Hong Kong on March 19. When asked by a student about Chinese netizens’ demands for the US government to push Chinese authorities away from censorship and repression, Ross replied with the perfectly diplomatic answer that history shows that change in China can only come from its own citizens and social networks can be of great help.

Online discussions sparked by Zuckerberg's visit to China focus not only on the Internet industry but also on censorship, freedom of expression and the hope–or not–of seeing Facebook unblocked.

William Moss, of the new collective blog Rectified.name, imagines possible scenarios and players around Facebook re-entering China, and designed a table where he demonstrates that talking about Facebook and China means talking about politics and freedom of expression:

The basic math is that to even have a chance of operating here Facebook would have to apply the mandated censorship policies either just to users of its core service in China or to a spinoff service that is kept separate from the core service. It would also have to be prepared to surrender Chinese user information to the authorities if requested.

Star Chan's post at M.I.C. Gadget also notes:

And thanks to all the Chinese micro-blog users from Sina Weibo [zh] who have captured all the snaps! [...] It should be noted that Zuckerberg won’t be able to update his Facebook account during his stay in Shanghai, thanks to the Great Firewall of China–unless he’s using a VPN.

Despite Facebook being blocked, almost 450,000 Internet users in China–according to socialbakers–access the social network by scaling the firewall with proxies, tunnels or VPN software, a practice not likely to change soon, if at all.

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