Four years ago, Mark Zuckerberg approached Xi Jinping at a White House dinner and asked if the Chinese president would honor him and his wife, Priscilla, by giving their soon-to-be-born child an honorary Chinese name. Xi declined, but Facebook still continued trying to break into China’s heavily restricted, but potentially very lucrative, internet market. The next year, Zuckerberg was famously pictured jogging across Tiananmen Square in heavy smog. Facebook was even reportedly building a censored version of the platform to operate in China in 2016, and the company set up a Facebook subsidiary in Hangzhou last year. Despite all this effort to scale the Great Firewall, the American social media giant remains banned in the country—and now reportedly is no longer even trying to operate in China anymore.
While corporate leaders from NBA commissioner Adam Silver to Apple CEO Tim Cook are careful to never offend the sensitivities of the Chinese government, Zuckerberg is now actively describing it as the enemy. Twice in the past week, the Facebook chief has defined Facebook as a torchbearer of American commerce and values—and as a combatant against a censorious, anti-democratic China.
On Wednesday in D.C., Zuckerberg will testify at a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, which is scrutinizing Libra, Facebook’s nascent cryptocurrency initiative. Libra is already in trouble because many of the original participants in its “coalition”—including Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, Stripe, and others—have pulled out. Now, it looks like it could face regulatory hurdles. In prepared remarks made public on Tuesday, Zuckerberg frames the international currency project in terms of American interest.
“While we debate these issues, the rest of the world isn’t waiting,” Zuckerberg warns U.S. lawmakers in his remarks. “China is moving quickly to launch similar ideas in the coming months. Libra will be backed mostly by dollars and I believe it will extend America’s financial leadership as well as our democratic values and oversight around the world. If America doesn’t innovate, our financial leadership is not guaranteed.” If U.S. regulators don’t give the green light to Facebook and the Libra Association—the independent governance body that is meant to control the currency—China will somehow prevail and fundamental American values will be at risk, he argued.
This warning echoes the one Zuckerberg issued last week in a talk he gave at Georgetown University on the topic of free speech. “Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values,” Zuckerberg said near the end of his 35-minute appeal. “There’s no guarantee these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top 10 are Chinese.” Zuckerberg admitted that he tried to enter China, but said Facebook “could never come to agreement on what it would take for us to operate there, and they never let us in.” The result of this is that now Facebook has “more freedom to speak out and stand up for the values we believe in and fight for free expression around the world.”
That speech was intended to push back against Facebook critics who argue that the company needs to do a better job preventing disinformation campaigns, reducing the viral spread of hate speech, and enforcing its terms of service to protect users against harm—in particular, critics who also feel the company needs to somehow be more tightly regulated. But Zuckerberg defined these detractors as wanting Facebook to take down political opinions they don’t like, and therefore threatening free expression. He argued that if Facebook isn’t allowed to uphold this important American value—or, as he likely fears, if Facebook faces any kind of government crackdown on its operations or breadth—Chinese companies could become more dominant, and the Chinese government’s values, which lack the reverence for free speech that Americans hold dear, could take hold.
While Zuckerberg is right that most people in the United States wouldn’t want to use an internet dominated by Chinese firms that are likely in thrall to the Chinese government, the CEO is also setting up a false choice, according to Graham Webster, the coordinating editor at the DigiChina Project with Stanford University and New America and an expert on Chinese digital policy. Zuckerberg is setting up a scenario where “either Facebook will be allowed to do what it thinks is right or China’s model is going to take over the world,” Webster said. “While there is a kernel of truth in that there is a Chinese model [of government-regulated internet companies] that is illiberal and it might be catching on around the world and that’s a real concern, that shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid legitimate democratic oversight in other countries.” Plus, Webster added, while Chinese-owned internet platforms WeChat and TikTok are popular, they’re not likely to upend entrenched American tech platforms anytime soon.
Webster says that If Zuckerberg were truly concerned with Facebook’s ability to export fundamental rights around the world—including the rights of those in China—he might couch his arguments in terms of international human rights, which include strong protections for free expression as well as rights to privacy, rather than specifically American values. After all, Facebook operates in every country in the world except those where it’s blocked, namely China, North Korea, and Iran. “Really principled companies and people ought to be looking at international human rights and how to uphold those values even when not required by law,” Webster said.
We’re at a moment where corporate leaders do have an important role to play in standing up to a Chinese government that would compromise any company trying to make money there. Because Facebook isn’t in such a position, it’s more able than most to take a stand for human rights. Instead, it’s found a useful argument for keeping pesky U.S. regulators out of its business.