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Facebook’s Evil Plan in China

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

The great China Beat has just published an article by James A. Millward about Facebook’s controversial plans for China.  The article is written from a cultural/human rights perspective, and it includes an interesting passage from LuXun’s Nahan.

“Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?”


“But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.”

A nice quote, not unlike some of the comments I got in the Ai Weiwei post. Mr. Millward’s point is, in a nutshell:  that businesses (and Bob Dylan) admittedly don’t have an obligation to spread democratic values. BUT that we can appeal to the stated principle of Facebook “to help people understand the world around them” and nail them with that.

This is an argument reminiscent of the Google non-evil saga, which makes me think:  the day all those tech companies stop getting themselves in trouble with their idealistic statements we will know the tech market is growing old…

Back to the post, I am not particularly against Mr. Millward’s point: the Chinese are “sleeping” in their iron house, let’s make some noise to wake them up. Then again, it may still be 5am in China now with the time difference, perhaps they want to stay in bed a bit longer…  it’s fine if you want to make noise outside, lead by example. But please don’t make the mistake of breaking in to kick them out of their beds. Only theirs is the freedom to choose, even when their choice is a bit more of oppression.

The View from Reality Camp

Back from the fascinating realm of metaphor and into the tough Chinese internet. Quite apart from the moral side of this, there are some important issues with the practical implementation of the FB plan in China:

  • As Bill Bishop already mentioned, the train has long passed for FB here. General social networks are all about critical mass of users, the rest is gimmicks. The only possible chance would be, as suggested by Hu Yanping,  to come with an existing local player.
  • Either way, it is impossible to implement the level of censorship required on social networks today without effectively separating them from the rest of the World-(ie. to have the FB China servers open in China and the rest of the World with Facebook.com behind the GFW).
  • This makes the whole Facebook plan pointless indeed, as it fails to deliver the single value that, in my view, could justify all the trouble: to help connect China with the rest of the World.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t worry so much about the ethical side of this-I doubt we will ever reach that point.  Facebook may lend their name to some weird creature in China, perhaps, and they will pay it with their reputation.  But the real core of Facebook  is the 500 million community that it has in the World, and this, unfortunately, is out of reach for the Chinese netizens.