WSJ: What China can learn from Taiwan about Facebook

Paul Mozur writes an excellent post on his Wall Street Journal blog analysing what Taiwan can teach China about Facebooking, following hot on the rumours that the world’s largest social network is set to enter China with a local partner (more details here).

Mozur begins by looking at the phenomenal growth Facebook has seen in Taiwan, which saw the country go from 400,000 Facebook users in June 2009 to more than 9 million (or 39% of the population) today thanks mainly to the sheer number of Chinese games (which are amongst the fastest growing) available .

Mozur goes on to look at one of the key conditions that might come with the arrival of Facebook in China, political discussion and expression.

From the blog post:

As Taiwan’s population has migrated to Facebook, so have other aspects of its culture, including its favorite national pastime: politics.

President Ma Ying-jeou opened his official Facebook fan page on Jan. 28, using the social network to disseminate videos of his speeches, provide updates on his activities and offer sometimes fiery responses to criticism from the local press. Other high profile politicians with official Facebook pages include Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, Li Teng-hui, and opposition Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidates Tsai Ing-wen and Su Tseng-chang. Meanwhile, groups from aboriginal associations to environmental activists and students upset about new mandatory Confucian curriculum use the space as a forum to plan activities and distribute petitions.

Far from being a force for revolution as social networking sites have become in the Middle East, Facebook in Taiwan is in the process of being fully integrated into its democratic system. But the myriad ways the site has proven a powerful tool for organizing people and Taiwan’s cultural and linguistic closeness to China is likely to give Chinese officials pause when considering whether to allow Facebook to enter China. Most likely that means any plan for Facebook would have to include self-censorship and cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party that would earn the company a healthy dose of opprobrium in the U.S..

If Facebook wants to gain entry in mainland China and tap that huge market, it will have to contend with that serious obstacle.

Is political discussion inevitable on Facebook?

In Asia it would seem so.

As I posted back in December – following a link from Singapore-based Prof Michael Netzley – I believe politics is one of the key drivers of digital uptake, and social media usage in Asia (mobile, gaming and international business expansion were the other three as you can read here).

Thailand provides a good example, particularly given some of the limits on freedom of expression in place – albeit not as extreme as China, as Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) saw a huge rise in membership and usage during the Bangkok protests in 2010.

As I blogged last year (here) the protests saw 500,000 new members (or a circa 15% increase) in just six weeks, which set the tone for the country’s member numbers to triple a year later with politics a key discussion point – in both positive and negative ways.

China itself has its own examples of politicised social networks.

Just last month a Washington Post articled argued that ‘weibos’ – the Chinese equivalent of Twitter-like microblogging services – have become “the public hall for people to discuss public affairs and formulate opinions” while “Weibo users are regularly engaged in a virtual debating free-for-all, touching on some of the most off-limits or politically touchy topics”.

So political discussion is already firmly established on China microblogs – where key influencers like academics and journalists tend to gather – another sure sign that politics is a key discussion point for social media.

Short of outright monitoring and banning there is little Facebook can, and likely would, do to control the conversation and remain credible, although Mozur suggests that the company might fall in line with the regime and its demands in China. Nonetheless, if it enters with a local player, the onus of managing sensitive issues will be on that partner which – if it is a company like Baidu, as has been strongly suggested – you’d expect that it would be capable of managing given its experience in the market.

With Facebook already blocked in China, you can be sure that officials will keep a close eye on any future activities, with the authorities not afraid to pull the trigger and block a site if need be – just ask LinkedIn, which  was forced to admit during its IPO disclosure process that China remains a “risk” after it was blocked, and then unblocked, in the country earlier this year..