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Beijing, Mandarin and the Age of Social Media: The Ideological Logic of Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin Speech

March 24, 2015 by Ting Guo

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, the largest and perhaps most successful online social media, gave a speech in Mandarin at Tsinghua University in Beijing in October 2014. This speech went viral and was widely applauded by the Chinese netizens in China and abroad.

It became the headline topic on all social media available in China, including Wechat, Weibo and Xiaonei, but not Facebook – Facebook itself has been banned in the country since July 2008. The popularity of Mark Zuckerberg’s speech among the Chinese, therefore, constitutes a great irony: for a country that has no access to Facebook, its love for the founder of this social media platform appears to be a kind of political satire in itself.


What is the Deal, and for Whom?

There is certainly a lot of business maneuvering involved here. Three ways of looking at this can shed some light.

Political message

The first is related to the political message behind Zuckerberg’s speech. Tsinghua University is one of the top ranking universities in China, and it is particularly famous for training top party leaders (including the current president, Mr Xi Jinping). Choosing Tsinghua to visit and deliver his speech is no accident, but a business strategy that was carefully planned prior to his visit to Beijing.

Doug Young from Forbes observes that as Apple’s CEO Tim Cook’s frequent visits to China are quite official and include many stops at government and company offices, Zuckerberg has been far more low-key in his equally regular visits, due to Facebook’s lack of official presence in the country where it is formally banned. But of course Zuckerberg wants desperately to find a way to enter the market. 

Young also suspects that Beijing might also welcome the world’s biggest SNS company under the current climate. Such a move would help to deflect recent criticism that China is hostile to foreign companies, amid the recent antitrust probes against mostly major multinationals. Allowing Facebook to enter would also help to deflect separate criticism leveled by foreigners who say China’s strict censorship policies are aimed at quashing free speech. Those strict censorship policies are believed to be the main reason why Facebook’s global website has been blocked in China for the last five years.

Tsinghua partnership

 Tsinghua University, famous for its technology studies, is often considered to be China’s equivalent of MIT. Choosing Tsinghua also makes Zuckerberg’s visit an engagement of the brilliant technology minds of the country, an intellectual encounter in addition to a political one. Zuckerberg was also nominated as an advisory member of Tsinghua’s School of Economics and Management.Other top executives at the event included IBM chief executive Virginia Rometty and Anheuser-Busch InBev CEO Carlos Brito.

During the visit, Zuckerberg said he would push for more cooperation with Tsinghua. Young predicts that Facebook could be considering entering China through a partnership with Tsinghua, which has shown a recent penchant for doing business with foreign firms. The university was one of China’s early tech manufacturing leaders with its Tongfang Group. More recently it has emerged as a consolidator for China’s high-tech microchip industry through its purchase of US-listed smartphone chip makers RDA Microelectronics and Spreadtrum. It later merged those companies into a single microchip maker, and sold 20 percent of it to Intel last month.

Business logic

Facebook’s main site was blocked by Beijing in 2009, but Zuckerberg has stated repeatedly since then that he wants Facebook to enter the market. He makes frequent trips to China, often traveling as a private citizen rather than a company executive. Three years ago he reportedly met with a number of executives from major Internet firms, including Internet search engine leader Baidu, to discuss a potential joint venture. But nothing ever came out of those talks. China is in the middle of an entrepreneurship boom – home-grown internet giants like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu have convinced a generation of young professionals that passion, focus and risk-taking can yield massive rewards.

All of this brings us to a more sensitive issue, namely what kind of vehicle Facebook might use to finally enter China. His meetings with those successful online media and business models that are intrinsically Chinese suggests that he is still searching for a direction. This could be alarming, as it further suggests a higher risk of Facebook’s entering into China being compromised and manipulated by interested parties. Already, a Twitter office has been opened in Hong Kong – could such tentative easing into the region be a strategy that Facebook might emulate?

The Civilisation and the Power of the Central Kingdom

The ordinary Chinese citizens were simply wowed over by Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin speech. The dynastic China had always self-posed as the centre of civilization and other nations as barbarians (夷yi). Even in the Qing period, when the old dynasty was facing the threat of modern military and technology from the West, court scholar Wei Yuan (1843) suggested “師夷長技以制夷”: that is, to learn the techniques of the barbarians so that you will have the upper hand over them.

 Thorsten Pattberg, research fellow of Peking University writes in his book East-West Dichotomy  (2009) that China never made any great attempts of covering her own truths and her aim to hold up Eastern values and wisdoms (why should the East throw away its 5000 years of successful history and culture?), and at the same time profit from the practicability of foreign learning. China also shows her ability to adopt herself, even if it involved aggressively copying from Westerners.

 The influence of true Westerners on China’s soil – as some patronizing American or European would like to imagine – as it was truly the case for example with Buddhism in China or the introduction of Western sciences by European missionaries (c.1575-1702 AD) before, in my view, is wishful thinking. That ‘Great Learning’ from the end of the Qing Dynasty onwards to the beginnings of the People’s Republic (1911-1949) is unmistakably ‘made in China’, an ‘intellectual property of China’, so to speak. I feel the urge to repeat this important historical fact: the rise of China is inherently Chinese, just as the Meiji Restoration (明治维新, Meiji ishin, 1868-1912) was inherently Japanese.

Yes, Lu Xun (鲁迅, 1881-1936) indeed took on some ideas of Nietzsche and developed them further. So did Li Shicen (李石岑, 1892-1934) and Mao Dun (矛盾, 1896-1981). Hu Shi (胡适,1891-1962) took on James’s and Dewey’s ideas on education and pragmatism and developed them further. Mao Zedong (毛泽东, 1893-1976), Chen Duxiu (陈独秀, 1879-1942) and Li Dazhao (李大钊, 1888-1927) took on Marxism and Leninism and developed them further. Yet, no foreigner took part in the intellectual output of those great cultural figures; the Chinese intellectuals – no less engaged in protecting their cultural sovereignty with nationalism than the Japanese before them – read Western theories, studied Western theories, improved them – sinocised them.

In the integration-based East, where knowledge comes from traditions, ancient concepts of the inductive Eastern “moral superiority” vs. Western deductive “scientific superiority” were soon identified as the nucleus of the East-West dichotomy. By all means Western technology and ways of rational inquiry – the deductive way – had to be acquired in order to defend against Western imperialism, yet it was the humanitarian Eastern soul and its wisdom – the inductive way – that should guide the East.

While China is going through rapid urbanization and economic reform today, with a large number of Chinese students are able to live, work and study overseas, this dichotomy still persists in in subtle ways. At the same time, these overseas Chinese complain about the food and the lack of entertainment and excitement in Europe, where capitalism and democracy have long been established and have already begun to slow down the pace of further development.

Let us face it: no place on earth can hardly live up to the scale of development and unceasing episodes of excitement in the biggest cities in China. That era in the “West” had long passed.

 Of course, there are people who disapprove of this assertion of cultural superiority.

An article entitled “A Brief History of White Dudes Wowing People with Mandarin” was reposted by many who share this sentiment. One student from Taiwan observed:

“The interesting question is why Chinese people (and yes, also Taiwanese) are easily pleased and amazed by foreigners (or to be specific, Westerners) who speak our language. We tend to believe that Mandarin is extremely difficult to learn. Yes it’s quite hard, but it’s not that hard really. We should be encouraging to Mandarin-learners, but we don’t need to be shocked by the fact that Westerners can actually speak perfect Mandarin. A Westerner who speaks some Mandarin in Taiwan will surprise almost everyone. Isn’t it quite normal to learn local language? Plus, Mandarin is a major language, so why not?”

A reinforcement of the status quo?

This leads to a deeper issue regarding who should be speaking Chinese, who can be Chinese, and the meaning of being “Chinese”. The status of Mandarin with PRC’s rise of economy and a harder line affects other places that use Mandarin as a national language or those places with a significant population that speaks Mandarin, such as Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, America, and Australia.

 Zuckerberg refers to his Chinese-American wife as “Zhongguo ren 中國人” (Chinese national), which feeds into the recent nationalistic trend to include overseas Chinese and Chinese diaspora as part of the big happy family, showing how strong and massive the nation is. This certainly has been noticed by other countries, when the US government appointed Gary Faye Locke to be the first Chinese American to serve as its ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011.

Is Zuckerberg’s choice of words simply a mistake for his yet-to-perfect Mandarin or is it an intentional recognition of the status quo? One Chinese student who lives in the UK speculated:

“Maybe I’m overly critical about this, but I can’t see any reason for excitement over this business. Referring to his Chinese-American partner as Chinese national at a top university in China which is famous for producing party leaders is akin to makinga political statement”

The Power of Social Media in a Global Age

Despite all the speculations regarding this speech, it is an undeniable fact that online social media has a defining influence in today’s world. Earlier this year, China hosted an Internet conference in Wuzhen, a historical town located about halfway between Shanghai and Hangzhou, the headquarters of e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba. Media including CNN reported that Chinese officials have reportedly punched a hole in the “Great Firewall” for the inaugural World Internet Conference, allowing more than 1,000 attendees to access parts of the Internet that are off limits to the 1.3 billion Chinese people.

The concession underlines the dilemma facing non-Chinese tech firms as they try to reconcile the country’s enormous potential with its heavy-handed approach to censorship and market access. The conference drew the ire of Amnesty International, which said China’s Internet model is one of “extreme control and suppression.”

William Nee, a researcher at the human rights group, told CNN:

 “China appears eager to promote its own domestic Internet rules as a model for global regulation, this should send a chill down the spine of anyone that values online freedom.”

However strong China’s Internet censorship remains, digital networking technologies have allowed the expansion and reconfiguration of social and organisational networks. The shift from traditional mass media to a system of horizontal communication networks organised around the Internet and wireless communication has introduced a multiplicity of communication patterns at the source of a fundamental cultural transformation. 

Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells argues that the Internet has become “the fabric of our lives”. If conscious communication is the distinctive feature of humans, it is logical that it is in this realm that society has been most profoundly modified. Computer networking, open source software and fast development of digital switching and transmission capacity in the telecommunication networks led to the expansion of the Internet and its privatisation in the 1990s, which further led to the generalisation of its use in all domains of activity. The number of Internet users on the planet grew from under 40 million in 1995 to about 1.5 billion in 2009. By 2009 rates of Internet penetration reached more than 60 per cent in most developed countries and were increasing at a fast pace in developing countries.

The prevalence of personal digital devices gives rises to new concepts of defining people as “digital natives” or “digital immigrants”. “Digital native” is a term that refers to people who grew up in the digital era (that is, roughly from 1980s until now). In contrast, the term “digital immigrant” refers to those who were born before 1964 and who grew up in a pre-computer world. Although born into different times, both digital natives and digital immigrants incorporate digital technologies in everyday life and daily work, using technology to integrate their work into their lives. It will be interesting to see how the younger generation of Chinese “digital natives” will make of the power of online media, and how that will affect the country and the larger world.

Drawing on a wide range of social and psychological theories, Castells presents original research on political processes and social movements, including the misinformation of the American public on the Iraq War, the global environmental movement to prevent climate change, the control of information in China and Russia, and Internet-based political campaigns, such as the Obama presidential campaign in the U.S. On the basis of these case studies, he proposes a new theory of power in the information age based on the management of communication networks. As China’s new generation of “digital natives” grow up with more choices and connections to the outside world, it would be interesting to see what they will make of the new era of social network.

Chinese New Year – Yay or Nay?

That said, it remains to be seen whether Zuckerberg’s stumbling efforts to master the tonal nature of the Mandarin language will contain to receive widespread acclaim. His Lunar New Year message, eagerly delivered in front of a festive backdrop, may become viral for the right reasons – or simply serve to provide comedic fodder for another group of netizens. Watch this brave, sometimes agonizing attempt here: 

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