Mark Zuckerberg runs through Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing in 2016. Photo: Facebook, via Agence France-Presse – Getty Images
The Facebook site and many applications of this company have long been blocked in China. The social network itself was blocked in 2009, Instagram – in 2014, and WatsApp was partially blocked in July 2017. To change the situation, Mark Zuckerberg met with the Chinese president, chief Internet official and other politicians, defiantly read Chinese Communist propaganda, studied Putonghua (Chinese) and even spoke publicly for 22 minutes in that language.
Now Facebook is trying a cunning way to bypass the Great Firewall.
In May 2017, Facebook approved the launch of a mobile application in China Colorful Balloons which is almost an exact copy of the proprietary application Facebook Moments to exchange photos from the smartphone. But if all over the world Moments connects users via Facebook, then Colorful Balloons works through China's largest WeChat social network using QR codes.
The application was released through a local front company that is not formally connected with Facebook, The New York Times is a source aware of the company's plans but wishes to remain anonymous in connection with the confidential nature of the information.
Judging by the description in the Chinese App Store, the developer of the application is Youge Internet Technology company with a legal Address east of Beijing, on the fourth floor of one of the office buildings (NYT editorial board could not be found in an office building, specified in the registration documents of the company's office number). The executive director is a woman named Zhang Jingme who was recently seen at an important meeting between the representatives of Facebook and the Shanghai administration (in the photo she sits next to Wang-Li Moser, Facebook's top manager for relations with the Chinese government). This indicates the high status of Zhang Jingmei and the credibility of the leadership of Facebook.
The secret and anonymous release of the application in China by a major US technology company is an unprecedented case, writes NYT. According to the publication, this "shows the level of desperation and disappointment" of Western IT companies, who unsuccessfully try to break into the world's largest Internet market with 700 million users and e-commerce turnover of $ 750 billion a year. Gradually everyone understands that China is a special place and it will not work here by generally accepted civilized methods.
Comparison of Colorful Balloons app (left) and Moments (right)
Comparison of the programs Colorful Balloons app (left) and Moments (right)
May 2017 in China came into force a new law on cybersecurity, directed against foreign Internet companies. The law requires companies to store data on the territory of China and provides for "security checks" among companies in a number of sectors. Users of Internet messengers are required to register under their real names. All this is done under the pretext of protection from cyberattacks and terrorism. The law declares its intention to monitor and protect the "critical information infrastructure", although the protection measures and subjects of this infrastructure are not clearly spelled out. In many respects, repressive Chinese legislation is duplicated with the latest laws adopted in Russia, which also declare the fight against anonymization services, require the storage of data on the territory of the Russian Federation and declare their intention to protect "critical information infrastructure."
Perhaps the Trojan issue Colorful Balloons in China is a touchstone, a kind of Facebook experiment. The company wants to test new methods of working in the market with draconian security legislation, if it does not work by civilized methods.
Until now, it was not known whether Chinese regulators and censorship are aware of the release of the Facebook application through a front company (after article In the NYT, they certainly know). But it is possible that they could close their eyes to this if the Chinese company-developer is really not formally connected with Facebook. In general, in the App Store and Google Play, as well as Chinese application catalogs, there are a lot of Chinese crafts that clone famous and popular Western writings. This program looks like one of these clones – and who will prove the opposite?
On the other hand, after such deceptive maneuvers, Facebook may face new complications in negotiations with the Chinese side on all issues. This is not so much a matter of business as a political issue. Having released the Trojan application via a shell company, Facebook was very risky, and this risks undermining the credibility of the leadership of the Communist Party of China, if such trust existed at all. And if it was not, then Facebook does not take any chances. After all, let the Chinese now try to find justification for blocking this application or try to prove Facebook's involvement.