Credit: Andrew Feinberg/Flickr

Mark Zuckerberg's Chinese charm offensive pays off

It's been a pending friend request for a while, but might Facebook finally be making progress in China?

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 09 May 2016

Facebook has managed to succeed where few companies – not even Apple – have triumphed before. It’s only gone and won a trademark case in China, a notoriously difficult nut to crack when it comes to Western companies upholding their IP rights.

International businesses have an uphill battle to prove their brand name is recognisable enough within China, but they’re often heavily hindered by regulation, obstructing the chance to build up a profile in the first place. Facebook’s progress might be a baby step – it has been banned in China since 2009 after all – but it’s a step forward nonetheless. A Beijing court ruled in favour of the tech giant and against Chinese firm Zhongshan Pearl River Drinks which had registered ‘face book’ as a separate trademark.

The court said the company had ‘violated moral principles’ with ‘obvious intention to duplicate and copy from another high-profile trademark’, which has brought speculation that China’s hard-line stance against Facebook might be softening.

This has taken time, and considerable effort from Mark Zuckerberg himself. He’s pulled out all the stops you’d expect a besotted suitor to do in order to win over an appealing new market. He’s learning Chinese, met the expected VIPs including propaganda chief Liu Yunshan and invited the country’s chief censor to his home in San Francisco. He also took a fair bit of flak for what many derided as a publicity stunt, when being photographed on a scenic run – or ‘smog jog’ as it was dubbed – through Beijing’s Tiananmen Square (despite heavy pollution and without a smog mask). Still, needs must when you’re trying to get into a country’s good books, right?

It’s clear he’s putting in the effort to woo a potentially significant market – and has perhaps learned a bullish approach isn’t always the most effective route to success (see his ongoing woes in India). But if Facebook can get the ban overturned, a big if in itself, there’s still uncertainty as to what its chances of success would be.

China has given its own social media firms a chance not just to gain traction, but to become an integral part of its citizens’ lives. The country reportedly has around 700 million internet users who spend 25 hours a week online, according to Chinese internet regulator Lu Wei. It’s the country with the most social networks and the most social media users – without Facebook’s sweeping dominance as in the West, a more fragmented market has developed, with the likes of WeChat, Weibo, Pengyou and QQ all co-existing. Whether Facebook would simply become another option for people to use among their social networks or manage to become as significant a presence as it has done in the West, is difficult to say.

Still, it’s a reminder that perseverance can pay off and rolling out your company's frontman on the odd charm offensive can be highly effective – particularly in a country like China where the importance of building relationships can’t be understated. It is, though, also a reminder of just how difficult a market China can be to enter, even for those who seem to have the Midas touch, and that’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. 

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