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In China, Facebook tests the waters with a stealth app

Blocked in China since 2009, Facebook introduces photo-sharing app, but with a different name

Paul Mozur | NYT  |  Shanghai 

Facebook, fb
Facebook logo is seen at a start-up companies gathering at Paris' Station F in Paris, France on January 17, 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

and many of its apps have been blocked in for years. To change that, has made a big point of meeting with Chinese politicians, reading stodgy Communist Party propaganda, studying Mandarin and — perhaps more daunting — speaking it in public.

Now the is trying a different way into China: by authorising the release of a new there that does not carry the name.

approved the May debut of a photo-sharing app, called Colorful Balloons, in China, according to a person with knowledge of the company’s plans, who declined to be named because the information is politically sensitive. The app, which has not previously been reported, shares the look, function and feel of Facebook’s Moments It was released through a separate local company and without any hint that the is affiliated with it.

The stealthy and anonymous release of an by a major foreign technology company in is unprecedented. It shows the desperation — and frustration — of global tech as they try to break into the world’s largest online market. It also underscores the lengths they are willing to go, and their increasing acceptance of the idea that standards for operating in are different from elsewhere.

China’s internet censorship — which includes making some news websites inaccessible and passing rules that result in removals — has left big players like and on the sidelines of a major boom there. The country boasts an audience of more than 700 million internet users who buy $750 billion of stuff online a year, but they are served by local tech that have developed their own way of doing business that can seem exotic to

hopes it can learn and potentially assimilate those ways. Yet the was banned in in 2009, followed by its photo-sharing Instagram in 2014, and its messaging WhatsApp was partially blocked last month. While the company has more than two billion users around the world, Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, has often asked where its next billion users will come from.

Now Colorful Balloons gives the company a way to see how Chinese users digitally share information with their friends or interact with their favourite social media platforms.

“We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country in different ways,” said in a statement.

It is unclear whether China’s various internet regulators were aware of the app’s existence. The under-the-table approach could cause new difficulties with a Chinese government that has maintained strict oversight and control over foreign tech

“It’s not a mere business thing,” said Teng Bingsheng, a professor of strategic management at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. “It’s politics.”

The Administration of did not respond to a faxed request for comment. Before the release of Colorful Balloons, had taken an unusually high-profile approach to courting

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, fb
A 2015 picture of Chinese (centre) with CEO at Microsoft’s main campus in Washington. Also seen is China’s former internet czar, (Photo: Reuters)
Zuckerberg had paid a series of visits to the country in recent years and become something of a celebrity there. Videos of him speaking Mandarin have gone viral, as did a photo of him jogging on a dangerously smoggy day through Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Colorful Balloons represents the opposite approach — one that is low profile.

The was released in by a company called Youge Internet Technology, according to a post in Apple’s store. It is registered to an address in eastern Beijing, yet the room number listed in company registration documents could not be found amid a series of shabby, small offices on the building’s fourth floor.

According to the documents, Youge’s executive director is a woman named Zhang Jingmei. She appeared in a photo of a recent meeting between and the Shanghai government, sitting next to Wang-Li Moser, a executive whose responsibilities include building up the company’s relationship with the Chinese government. Zhang’s presence at such a high-level meeting indicated she is likely a adviser or employee.

declined to comment on Zhang’s relationship to the company, and Zhang did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.

If did little to promote Colorful Balloons in China, it did work to tailor the to a local audience. In the rest of the world, the company’s Moments connects users through Colorful Balloons instead links users through China’s biggest social network, WeChat.

The app, which is designed to collate photos from a smartphone’s photo albums and then share them, does so in with the use of a QR code, a sort of bar code that is widely used by WeChat and other apps in the country.

While photos can be shared, appears to have taken steps to ensure the could not spread widely. For example, people who post photos from Colorful Balloons on WeChat will see a link that lets other users download Facebook’s Chinese But the link does not work, meaning people have to seek out Colorful Balloons in an store instead of grabbing it from their friends, which may limit its distribution.

The risk is taking with the new is high. The company appears to have handed over a fully functioning product to Youge for release, and has done so without indicating in any public way that it is connected to Coming just ahead of a key meeting of the Chinese Communist Party this autumn, the secretive release of Colorful Balloons could also undermine trust between the company and the Chinese government.

Such tactics underline the degree to which is willing to experiment and break precedent to get into Last year, The New York Times reported had also quietly been at work on a censorship tool that could be used on a version of the in a place like China, where the government demands control over what is shared. The tool could suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas.

Yet even if is able to use Colorful Balloons to keep up with the Chinese market, a recent intense internet crackdown in suggests the political winds may not soon blow in favour of the company further entering the country.

Zuckerberg’s attention to also appears to have waned. And China’s former internet czar, Lu Wei, who had visited Facebook’s offices in 2014, has been removed from his position, making things harder for the company.

“The government’s control and surveillance of media is strict, and it is almost impossible for them to open that door,” said Teng, the Cheung Kong professor. “Although has visited many times and practiced his Chinese very hard, I don’t foresee any major breakthroughs for

©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sat, August 12 2017. 20:12 IST