Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's latest charm offensive with China has generated decidedly mixed reviews.
Last week, he hosted a senior Chinese official whose office is responsible for banning Facebook-- along with other popular sites like YouTube and Twitter -- in China.
In photos posted on China.com.cn, a government-run web portal, top Internet regulator Lu Wei is seen seated in Zuckerberg's chair at Facebook's California campus while holding a book with Chinese President Xi Jinping's portrait adorning its cover.
The accompanying text explains that, when Lu found a copy of "Xi Jinping: The Governance of China" on Zuckerberg's desk, the young billionaire told the smiling Communist Party cadre in Mandarin:
also bought this book for my colleagues -- I want them to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics."
That quote has quickly gone viral online, along with a propaganda poster-style image that features Zuckerberg in a Chinese soldier's uniform clutching Xi's book to his chest.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chinese internet users have reacted with as much surprise and amusement as ridicule and disapproval.
Some sound sympathetic to Zuckerberg's strong desire to crack China's Internet market, the world's largest and a gaping hole in Facebook's global reach.
"He's a smart guy -- to conquer that market means to cooperate with the Chinese government and make money together," wrote one Twitter user.
Others, however, feel betrayed by Zuckerberg's apparent kowtowing to Beijing authorities, who have built one of the world's most extensive Internet filtering and censorship systems to restrict speech and crush dissent online.
"Even if you have read all the books by Xi or (late paramount leaders) Deng Xiaoping or Mao Zedong, it's not going to help you in China," said another commenter. "You're already late in the game and then there is censorship -- it would make more sense for you to work with Google to end Internet censorship."
China's state media has been smitten with Zuckerberg since his October visit to Beijing, where he wowed students at an elite university by answering their questions in accented but fluent Mandarin.
To rousing applause, the 30-year-old Internet entrepreneur said he took on the challenge of studying Mandarin to communicate with his wife's family and to better appreciate the Chinese culture.
He also traded his signature hoodie-and-jeans look for a suit and tie when he met Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan -- one of seven men who effectively rule the country -- at a heavily guarded leadership compound just west of Tiananmen Square.
"Wang and Lu should be Zuckerberg's sponsors for joining the Communist Party and Xi can grant his immediate approval for admission," tweeted Hu Jia, one of China's most prominent political dissidents, upon learning the Facebook co-founder's remarks to Lu about Xi's book.
"I once held up a sign that said 'regimes that block Facebook won't last long,'" he added. "Now I'm afraid Zuckerberg is making a deal or even forming an alliance with the enemy of the Internet."
For Hu and others, no Facebook at all is preferable to a Facebook with Chinese characteristics.
Learning to speak Chinese, a notoriously tough language, wasn't enough. Now Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is plowing through the speeches of China's Communist Party chief and forcing colleagues do the same, a Chinese government website said Monday.
Facebook remains banned in China, because party leaders appear to fear its utility for spreading dissent and organizing protests. But Zuckerberg gave a warm reception recently to one of China's top Internet regulators — a country that censors what content and websites its 600 million-plus Internet users can view.
The government-run China.com.cn posted pictures Monday of Lu Wei, minister of China's Cyberspace Administration, sitting at Zuckerberg's desk as the multibillionaire stood. The website also ran photos of separate meetings between Lu and Apple CEO Tim Cook, and with Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. No dates were given, but state media reports showed Lu was in the USA last week.
On the desk next to Zuckerberg's laptop was a copy of The Governance of China, an English language collection of the speeches of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"I also bought this book for my colleagues," Zuckerberg told Lu, in Chinese, China.com
reported. "I want them to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics."
Zuckerberg impressed many Chinese citizens in October by speaking in Mandarin during an entire question-and-answer session at a college, revealing his heavily accented but highly creditable language skills. Zuckerberg said his reasons for learning the language included his wife, who is ethnically Chinese; his interest in Chinese culture; and his love of a challenge.
Facebook faces huge challenges to fulfill its mission to "connect the world" without compromising content and operations as Beijing would likely require. But Zuckerberg's charm offensive with Lu reveals he's picked up more than just Mandarin.
"It shows a mastery of the type of sycophancy that can have results in China," said Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder of Danwei, a Beijing-based media research firm. "Even if there is no chance in hell of Facebook operating in China in the near future, they have long-term ambitions," he said.
Last month, China hosted the World Internet Conference, during which officials stressed Beijing's determination to strengthen Internet governance on its own terms. Cyberspace should be "free and open, with rules to follow and always following the rule of law," Lu told the forum, Reuters reported. Authorities detained students demonstrating to seek access to Facebook, attendees told the news agency.
"Despite Lu Wei's protestations that China's Internet is open, it's never been more heavily censored," Goldkorn said. "Since Xi Jinping got into power, and under Lu Wei, there's been a campaign to silence critics of the government that has been largely successful, by deleting posts but also intimidating the celebrity bloggers," he said. "There have never been more foreign websites blocked than now."
At the Internet summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang emphasized how China sees the Internet primarily as a machine for growing the economy and creating jobs, Goldkorn said.
In Xi's book, which was published this year, Zuckerberg and his colleagues can read about the president's calls to the Communist Party's 87 million members to "adhere to Marxism," "be tenacious as bamboo" and avoid "flawed thinking, hedonistic desires, corrupt behavior and passive attitudes."
They may also spot clues as to why Facebook remains unwelcome in the world's largest Internet marketplace. Online tools "which spread information quickly over wide areas and can mobilize large numbers of users" challenge authorities' ability to "guide public opinion" and safeguard "national security and social stability," says a November 2013 party document.
Chinese Internet users, denied access to Facebook unless they use a Virtual Private Network, reacted with humor to the reports Monday.
"Ah? It's amazing there really is this company in the world," wrote a director at a movie and video website, posting under the name Sesehou, on Sina Weibo, a micro-blog that has boomed in the absence of Twitter, which is also banned in China. "I always thought it was a rumor. Every time I input Facebook it always displays: this website does not exist," he wrote on his account, which has 160,000 followers.