When Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, posted photos of himself jogging on the ancient city walls of the Chinese historic capital of Xi’an and bowing down to a Buddhist statue at the city’s Wild Goose Pagoda Tuesday, the message was clear: he wanted to show his appreciation for the country and culture.
However, in every practical sense, the world’s social networking site is still not operational in the world’s most populous country. Going back to July 2009, people trying to access the site in China have received an error message on their screens: “404 not found”. Zuckerberg has become a Chinese social network celebrity nevertheless, charming Chinese netizens with his personality and his ability to speak Chinese.
This week, a number of Chinese netizens commented on a photograph of Zuckerberg offering prayers at a Buddhist sanctuary. Netizens half-jokingly argued that the name of the shrine the “Wild Goose Pagoda”, which conjures up an image of a clumsy waterfowl, belittles the spiritual place; a better replacement might be to call it the Dayan Pagoda, a substitution which includes the name of a migratory bird that sounds so much classier.
Zuckerberg also delivered a 22-minute speech in China on Saturday concerning his mission and vision entirely in Mandarin Chinese.
At Tsinghua University, one of China’s top higher education institutions – often nicknamed the MIT of China – Zuckerberg proudly told an audience, consisting mostly of MBA students, that Facebook has made Internet available in emerging, less developed markets by improving connectivity, lowering costs and providing solutions such as his Internet.org initiative. His end goal is to connect everyone in the world.
He also commended China for its innovations, ranging from historical inventions like gunpowder and the compass, to the recent contributions to the Internet introduced by the likes of Xiaomi and Alibaba.
Zuckerberg even showed off his idiomatic use of the language in a speech delivered without notes, “There is a good Chinese saying, which says that if you work at it hard enough, you can grind an iron bar into a needle,” he said. “If you keep working hard, you will change the world.”
Though his Mandarin was heavily accented, it was a noticeable improvement from his first attempt a year ago at a Q&A session at Tsinghua.
The entire speech captured on camera was uploaded onto Chinese video streaming sites and posted on homegrown social networks and soon became one of the hottest trending topics.
Most Chinese web users centered their discussions on his language skills. Many on Sina Weibo, the Chinese analogue to Twitter, applauded his effort despite imperfection. One wrote, “I am really surprised. If Zuckerberg can improve his Mandarin so much within a year, what excuse do I have to give up on my English?” Another commented, “The owner of a website blocked in China, and yet he still tries so hard to communicate in Chinese. Incredibly hard-working.”
In a poll conducted by Howbuy, an online publication which asked the question “What do you think of Zuckerberg speaking Chinese,” 69% of respondents answered, “It’s not an easy task. Thumbs up to him!”
Other Weibo users were less forgiving. “It is the very first time that I’ve actually needed subtitles to understand Chinese,” one user wrote.
Zuckerberg has persevered in ingratiating himself with the Chinese authorities and Internet users. Last December, when he met with Lu Wei, China’s Internet Czar, in his office at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, he had a book authored by President Xi Jinping on his desk positioned right next to his laptop. At Chinese New Year in February, he uploaded a video well-wishing Chinese people in Mandarin.
More recently, he shook hands with President Xi Jinping during his state visit to the United States last month, and reportedly even asked Xi for advice on his future daughter’s name.
Despite all the goodwill that Zuckerberg has managed to build, there’s still no sign the Chinese authorities will loosen up their control over social networks.
(Top photo from Baidu Image)