Facebook, has helped drive Vietnam’s online business to new heights. Source: Reuters.

Facebook sneaks into China with photo-sharing app Colorful Balloons

FACEBOOK has almost always been on the outs with the Chinese government, but they may have found a way around the Great Firewall: a secret photo-sharing app called Colorful Balloons that has been available in the country since May.

The story was first reported by The New York Times who discovered the world’s biggest social network has been secretly beta-testing the app in China, which has also barred access to Google and Twitter. The app looks and feels almost exactly like Facebook’s Moments app, but has been renamed to disguise any hint of its affiliation with the Zuckerberg-founded company.

The company declined to confirm the details of the app which could help Facebook study how Chinese users share information and use social media in order to organize their next move to convince censors to allow the network into the country.

“We have long said we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country in different ways,” the company said to Bloomberg.

“Our focus right now is on helping Chinese businesses and developers expand to new markets outside China by using our ad platform.”

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China could very well be home to the “next billion” Facebook users founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is chasing. The country boasts a digitally-minded population of more than 700 million Internet users, as well as a US$750 billion e-commerce and US$50.3 billion digital advertising markets. Facebook earns big bucks through its advertising capabilities, and tapping into China’s markets could prove to be its next great success.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a panel discussion held as part of the China Development Forum. Pic: AP.

However, companies in the US and the West are often stumped by China’s alien culture, where big local companies have significantly transformed its Internet landscape. Through Colorful Moments, Facebook could learn how to be more like the WeChats and Weibos of China.

Founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has been launching a charm offensive on China in the last few years as he tries to woo Chinese authorities into opening its doors to the social network. This has included overt PR campaigns featuring the American jogging through Tiananmen Square and learning (and publicly speaking) Mandarin.

SEE ALSO: China cracks down on Whatsapp, reveals new developments in image censorship

However, his efforts have largely been rebuffed: Facebook’s WhatsApp got partially blocked last month, while Instagram got kicked out in 2014. The government has overall been cracking down on social media and messaging platforms, as well as the virtual private networks (VPNs) that gave users behind China’s Great Firewall access to overseas websites. In this restrictive environment, it’s difficult to see China opening its arms to welcome Facebook’s stealthy strategy.