Close Read: Sheryl Sandberg on China

There’s an unnerving paragraph in the New Yorker’s otherwise excellent piece on Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Summers’ former chief of staff and now COO at Facebook.

It reads:

Another of Sandberg’s challenges is how to enter China, where the government has a particular interest in knowing who your friends are and what they say. “If you want to be connected to the whole world, you can’t be without connecting China,” Sandberg says.

 

Both Sandberg and [Mark] Zuckerberg extol a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Clay Shirky, in which he argued that social media creates a “public sphere” that can help authoritarian countries to transition to democracy. One Facebook executive said he knows that dissidents who go on the site might be identified by the government and punished. But as long as the dissidents aren’t misled by Facebook and know that imprisonment is a risk–and he believes they do–it’s a choice they should be allowed to make.  [Emphasis added].

If one doesn’t happen to actually use the websites frequented by Chinese netizens, Sandberg’s and the unknown “executive’s” comments make Facebook sound like an awfully courageous company.

I’ve heard this tech messiah rhetoric before – “the Chinese deserve Facebook!”  Well, the Chinese definitely deserve the uncensored internet that U.S. citizens enjoy. But what Facebook would offer in China would not be an uncensored Internet. Facebook would have to censor, or they wouldn’t be allowed to enter and stay in the country, simple as that. That’s why Google left.

The paragraph implies that because there is no Facebook (the company) in China, there is no social network and a weaker civil society. That’s blatantly untrue. Social networking and microblogging are incredibly popular in China. In fact, one such network, Renren, is an almost perfect knockoff of Facebook down to the colouring and font. Here are some of the most popular websites:

www.renren.com

http://t.sina.com.cn – a “microblog” – the same idea as Twitter, plus photos

It’s clear that revealing views through social media is a choice that Chinese dissidents are already “allowed to make.”

Either Sandberg and her staff don’t know this and seriously needs to reconsider their rhetoric, or they do know it, realize they can probably fool the population at large on this, and are masking Facebook’s interest in profit and their own “global” reputation as a kind of missionary service.

The question is: If Facebook has nothing new to offer, why choose to obey laws that rob Chinese citizens of access to information and allow imprisonment for freethinking?

UPDATE: There is no Chinese version of LinkedIn, so someone should get on that immediately! If no one does it in a year, I’ll do it myself..

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