When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on stage at Tsinghua University in Beijing Wednesday for a 30-minute Q&A session, the audience expected him to do what foreigners generally do: Utter a few words in Mandarin to acknowledge their culture, then depend heavily on translators.
Instead, Zuckerberg elicited gasps of approval from the audience when he spoke in Mandarin all the way.
He had a strong American accent, it is true, and he often groped for words, but he managed to make himself understood and even crack a few jokes.
The episode sparked a media frenzy, with some reports criticizing his heavy accent, others saying he spoke broken Mandarin, and still others calling his mastery of the language “fluent.” At one point, he apparently had difficulty pronouncing “billion” in Chinese, and seemed to claim that Microsoft had 11 customers and Facebook 11 mobile users.
Speaking in Tongues
Zuckerberg’s reported mistakes are all grist for the media mill, but so what?
“He could make himself understood, which is pretty good for someone who seems only to have been working on it for a year or so,” said Mark Csikszentmihalyi, Eliaser Chair of International Studies and chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley.
“You can tell he uses it, [probably] with his wife’s paternal grandmother, because his ability to express himself outpaces his vocabulary at this point, where for many book learners it’s quite the opposite,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
“Mark Zuckerberg’s meeting with students and faculty at Tsinghua University is quite impressive and notable — not only because it demonstrated his proficiency in Mandarin, but because he was doing so as an American CEO of a major global corporation,” noted Joseph Pastore Jr., professor emeritus at Pace University’sLubin School of Business.
Hen Hao, Hen Hao
Zuckerberg at Tsinghua University because he has been named to the advisory board of the institution’s school of economics and management.
Facebook is under increasing pressure from competitors such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest, and needs to expand to fend them off.
There’s speculation that Zuckerberg’s seeking to have Beijing lift its 2009 ban on Facebook. Other social media services, such as Twitter, also are banned, and LinkedIn censors entries in its pages for its Chinese version.
China has nearly 620 million Internet users, according to Statista, equivalent to about half the number of Facebook users worldwide, 1.3 billion.
China would give Facebook access to 1.5 billion potential users, and “if Facebook becomes dominant in three corners of the world — India, Brazil and China — it will have accessed half the world’s population with just these three nations out of about 200 worldwide,” Pastore told the E-Commerce Times.
Paving the Road
The astonishment that greeted Zuckerberg’s performance in Mandarin is understandable.
“Most of the world’s CEOs assume that English is the world’s language, especially in commercial and professional settings,” Pastore said.
However, speaking Mandarin “should make sense in this age of global business, especially given the size and success of China,” he added.
China now powers the global economy, and its announcement earlier this week that third quarter GDP has slowed to 7.3 percent is widely seen as being bad for the world as a whole and for the United States.
Facebook needs to collaborate and coordinate with Beijing if it wants to succeed in China, observed Chris Tang, visiting distinguished management and operations professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
“Knowing some basic Chinese and Chinese culture will go a long way,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
“Showing respect and understanding can make your potential partners open up to discussions,” Tang said.
China has blocked social media platforms “out of fear,” he added. “If Zuckerberg can address this unspoken fear in a subtle way that can earn the trust of the Chinese government, he may have a chance — but he needs to earn the trust first.”