You probably heard already, but Mark Zuckerberg gave a free speech speech Thursday. Most people are focused on what he said about the U.S., and rightfully so. But let’s look specifically at his comments about China.
Paraphrased and annotated
- Mark: China’s creating its own internet with different values and controls than the West’s. Ryan’s note: This is known as the “splinternet,” a fragmented system of nationally controlled internets.
- Mark: Six of the top 10 internet platforms are Chinese. Me again: China’s platforms get a boost in scale from the country’s 1.4+ billion consumers, but FB is doing ok with its 2.7+ billion monthly active users across its platforms.
The state of play
The Great Firewall and its censorship controls preclude Facebook from operating in mainland China. The company has used the threat of Chinese competition to advocate against antitrust and other regulatory activity in Washington:
- COO Sheryl Sandberg told CNBC in May that Beijing is not going to break up Chinese tech companies.
- Last week, Libra lead David Marcus told TechNode that China’s digital payment system could win if FB’s token fails.
It’s not just Facebook
Chinese tech supremacy is also rhetorical ammo for smaller, defense-oriented U.S. companies. See: Peter Thiel’s August NYT opinion column or Anduril Industries Co-founder Palmer Luckey’s recent comments to Fox News. Both think U.S. tech companies should view China as an adversary, not a business opportunity.
But that’s definitely not the consensus view, especially for Big Tech companies that already have skin in the game. China is Apple’s third largest market. Microsoft has a key AI research hub in Beijing, whose work CEO Satya Nadella doesn’t want disrupted. Google has Chinese AI research partnerships and B2B sales to Chinese companies with an international presence.
- Recently, Google and Apple have pulled apps linked to the Hong Kong protests from their stores, highlighting the value of their relationship with China.
Bottom line: Regardless of the real or perceived threats of a rising technological China, it’s now a conversation starter across the U.S. In Menlo Park, as an argument that FB should control the keys to the AI kingdom. At Silicon Valley defense startups, to curry favor in D.C. But as for Apple, Microsoft, and Google, they’d rather not have this conversation right now.