Facebook and China have far more in common than you might think

Mark Zuckerberg is pulling off a feat bigger than becoming the world's richest 20-something: thriving in the cyber age even before "friending" the most populous nation and biggest internet market.

Mark Zuckerberg is pulling off a feat bigger than becoming the world's richest 20-something: thriving in the cyber age even before "friending" the most populous nation and biggest internet market.

Facebook's founder will soon have to "like" China, where his website is banned. A post-offering Facebook will have shareholders demanding that it tap China's 1.3 billion people, and now.

Such is life when your business model is predicated on ever-growing ranks of users updating, sharing and poking to make advertisers and investors rich.

Zuckerberg will certainly face difficulties. Facebook's role in the Arab Spring movement caused many sleepless nights for Communist Party bigwigs. Yet more focus should be on the things China and Facebook have in common - things that may not jibe with Zuckerberg's claims of making the world a better place.

Let us imagine a conversation between Zuckerberg and the Chinese President, Hu Jintao. Zuckerberg might greet Hu as the supreme leader of the world's biggest marketplace Hu might refer to the hoodie-clad American as the supreme leader of the internet world.

"Contrary to what you might think, it will be great to have Facebook in China," Hu might say. "My billion-plus people are used to having no privacy and relish losing even more of it thanks to your blue and white pages. That pleases me."

Zuckerberg might retort: "Yes, Mr President, you will be happy to know that my people, just under a billion users mind you, also look forward to sharing what's left of their privacy with you and me." (Maniacal laughs all around.)

"See, Mr Zuckerberg, we are not so different," Hu adds. "We both exert complete power over populations more eager to surrender it than they realise." Zuckerberg adds: "And you have to admit there's a silver lining here - this will really stick it to Google. Neither of us likes them very much."

China's leaders will expect Facebook to bow to their censorship demands the way Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Cisco Systems have. Twitter recently made an about-face, announcing it will block posts on behalf of governments. And Facebook will look forward to mining what it can from China's masses, just as it does America's.

That's probably not the Faustian bargain Time magazine envisioned in 2010 when it dubbed Zuckerberg "Person of the Year". For all the hype about Facebook as a force for democracy, its profit model is predicated on something very different, and its side effects are still being counted.

Wall Street views Facebook as an unstoppable, limitless force, much like economists thinking China can grow 10 per cent forever. Facebook views our privacy as a commodity to be bought, sold and monetised, much as China's government benefits from keeping close tabs on the masses. China's vast supply of low-wage workers comes from the nation's hinterlands Zuckerberg's cheap-labour source is Facebook users.

Just like financiers wary of China, many Facebook users have too much invested in the social-media juggernaut to walk away. Those miffed by Facebook mining their lives for profit think it's too big a phenomenon to blow off. It's one thing for socially responsible investors to steer clear of tobacco and oil stocks China is quite something else.

Facebook's governance structure resembles a dictatorship by requiring investors to surrender rights to Zuckerberg. He now controls 56.9 per cent of voting power and has the right to appoint his successor, a "disquieting factor", Larry Haverty, of Gamco Investors, says. Yet asked whether a growth-stock investor like him wants to own Facebook, he said, "absolutely".

The bulls are so enthusiastic about China and Facebook that they have no time for questions about whether either has peaked. China proved it can grow for three years without US and European consumers. Doing so for two or three more years is another story.

Critics question how many Facebook accounts are genuinely active and how many are duplicates. And what if China goes the way of Japan and South Korea, where social networkers prefer local offerings?

Facebook faces as existential a question as any internet company does: Is it a virtual part of our lives or a real one? Even if some people are on Facebook for eight hours a day or more, does it mean they will reach for their credit cards?

Zuckerberg wants "to change how people relate to their governments". Will such sophomoric idealism survive the Beijing challenge?

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