Last week, while some commentators mused on the possibility of Pope Francis and Xi Jinping bumping into each other during their dueling high-profile U.S. tours, I pondered instead what two much younger men would say if they ran into each other in Washington, D.C. Like Xi and the Pope, the two I had in mind have both graced the cover of Time magazine and either won or been among the runner-ups for its Person of the Year award. This younger pair, both of whom arrived in the capital late last week to take part in China-related events—albeit of radically different kinds—were Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong.
Wong was in the capital to attend a Thursday evening Freedom House ceremony honoring him for his leadership in the Umbrella Movement, an inspiring struggle to protect civil liberties and expand voting rights whose first anniversary has just been celebrated with new street actions in Hong Kong. Zuckerberg jetted to D.C. to sit at the head table at Friday’s White House state dinner honoring Xi—before hurrying back to the West coast to host Narendra Modi, the other strongman leader of an Asian country with a massive population of real and potential consumers who had come to the United States for meetings and group photo ops with tech CEOs.
If the eighteen-year-old Wong and the thirty-one-year-old Zuckerberg had run into each other, the conversation might have started off on a friendly note. Wong could have broken the ice by praising Facebook for playing an important role in spreading the Umbrella Movement Things would have turned tense quickly, though, if Wong, who has a popular Facebook page that he updates constantly, had suggested that after college he might apply for a job in the Hong Kong office of Zuckerberg’s corporation. The Facebook CEO would probably not like that idea one bit.
This may seem strange as, at first blush, Wong would seem to be on track to be a perfect candidate for a job at Facebook. He is cosmopolitan, multilingual, and a digital native, serious minded yet pop-culture savvy. Moreover, nothing bonds people like a common enemy, and Wong’s leadership of the Umbrella Movement has made him a thorn in the side of China’s Communist Party—an organization that, by making his social media platform verboten in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, has stymied Zuckerberg’s plans to blanket the world with Facebook users.
And yet, for one very simple reason, I don’t think Zuckerberg would see Wong as a good fit for his Hong Kong office. It’s because Wong’s activism has led the Communist Party to ban him from traveling to the mainland.
This matters because Zuckerberg has made clear by his recent actions that he hasn’t given up on breaking into the Chinese market. Last October, he made a special trip to Beijing to try out in public the Mandarin he had been learning in private. Then he gave Xi’s book some nice free publicity by displaying it on his desk when China’s leading digital official, Lu Wei, stopped by—something that was noted in reports of Zuckerberg’s oddly cordial meet-up with an “internet czar” whose duties include trying to keep the Chinese web clean of content the government dislikes. And when Xi, who is both China’s President and head of its Communist Party, began his U.S. trip with a stop in Seattle, there was Zuckerberg in a group photo, smiling alongside Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and several other CEOs, most of whose products aren’t banned in China. That photo alone will prove useful in the Chinese leader’s ongoing PR efforts at home to convince domestic audiences, including digitally minded urban youths, that he is popular and influential abroad.
Xi and Zuckerberg even spoke one on one in Chinese for a few minutes in Seattle. Shortly afterward, Zuckerberg boasted on his personal page of having gotten his first chance to speak a foreign language with a foreign head of state. Just a few days later, though, the agile Facebook CEO was pivoting to India, draping his profile in the colors of the Indian flag to prepare for his meeting with Modi.
If Facebook ever does get the chance to move into the mainland for which Zuckerberg is angling, the Hong Kong office would play a key role. It might prove rather awkward at that point to have its staff include someone who can’t cross the border—let alone include a high-profile bête noir for Xi, the man Zuckerberg seemed so eager to “friend” last week that he followed him from coast to coast.
This issue goes far beyond Facebook as a corporation and Wong as an individual. There are other companies that have run into roadblocks trying to enter the Chinese market, yet still dream of finding a way to gain access to a country said to have as many members of its middle class as there are Americans. Wong is also not the only young Hong Kong activist who cannot cross the border, as Xi and company have found banning them from entering the mainland a useful method for containing the spread of what they see as dangerously democratic ideas. Perhaps China’s leaders hope that other youths, already concerned about their future job prospects, will think twice about participating in or at least leading struggles of which Beijing disapproves.
China’s rise, as Xi’s recent visit made clear, has been and will continue to be a source of fascination, excitement, and concern—and a rich producer of ironies.
It is ironic that, unless they had access to a virtual private network (VPN) that allowed them to circumvent the Great Firewall, no one on the Chinese mainland could read, let alone “like,” Zuckerberg’s feel-good account of speaking Mandarin with Xi in Seattle.
It is ironic that Xi’s U.N. premiere Sunday was part of an event promoting gender equality—when, under his watch, feminist activists have been detained for doing things much like what they had been able to do without running into trouble just a few years ago.
It is ironic that, in describing their dislike of the Umbrella Movement last year, the Chinese Communist Party used phrases about protests being “bad for business” and undermining “social order” that not only had a pro-capitalist ring to them, but also were much like the things that Hong Kong’s British colonial authorities had said decades before to denigrate anti-imperialist demonstrations.
And it is ironic that being banned from going to the mainland may make it hard for talented Hong Kong youths like Joshua Wong to find work with companies that have been banned by Beijing.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History and Professor of Law, by courtesy, at UC Irvine, and author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.