Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg Makes Another Appearance in China -- Update

By Alyssa AbkowitzFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

Facebook may not be back in China, but Mark Zuckerberg is.

The social-media titan's chairman and chief executive arrived in Beijing on Saturday for the annual meeting of Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management's advisory board. He skipped last year's gathering, though he did visit China in March 2016.

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A Facebook Inc. spokeswoman declined to discuss Mr. Zuckerberg's visit, which comes after a recent series of actions possibly indicating renewed efforts to re-enter the Chinese market, where the company's main platform has been blocked since 2009.

In September, Facebook hired William Shuai to lead its government relations efforts in Beijing. Mr. Shuai was hired away from social-networking company LinkedIn Inc., which gained access to China by agreeing to censor its content for local users and by forming a joint venture with Chinese partners. Earlier this year, Facebook invested $5 million in registered capital into its Oculus virtual-reality unit in Shanghai, nearly doubling the amount to $11.3 million.

Mr. Zuckerberg got a little face time with President Xi Jinping, who addressed the Tsinghua advisory board Monday. It was not known whether Mr. Zuckerberg had any Facebook-related meetings with Chinese officials on his trip, which occurred less than a week after the closing of the country's twice-a-decade political meeting that cements leadership for the next five years.

Before the advisory board meeting Monday, Mr. Zuckerberg participated in several events with Tsinghua students.

On Saturday, he heard several students describe their startup ventures, including a music-composition program that creates tunes using artificial intelligence and a diagnosis system for heart disease based on AI.

"Mark said that our project was impressive," said Mo Weishu, one of the students from the music-composition team who delivered the presentation to Mr. Zuckerberg. "He suggested that besides producing music, we should explore product diversification, such as automatically generating soundtracks for videos."

Earlier this year, Facebook, based in Menlo Park, Calif., and Tsinghua teamed up to offer a course on insights from Silicon Valley, which entailed Tsinghua flying in seven Facebook executives over the semester to teach some of the classes. Two of the projects Mr. Zuckerberg saw Saturday came out of that course.

Later that evening, Mr. Zuckerberg posted a picture of himself with Tsinghua students--drawing several comments that pointed to the obstacles Facebook must overcome for any return of its social-networking platform to China.

"If you think you can ever convince them about opening up to a free speech platform like Facebook, forget it," one commenter wrote. "They just had a 19th Congress that reaffirmed their commitment for censorship and weeding out dissent."

Mr. Zuckerberg has said he considers China crucial to Facebook's future, and his participation on the Tsinghua board may be a sign that he hasn't given up on hopes of re-entering the country's market, said Mark Natkin, managing director at Marbridge Consulting in Beijing.

"I think he's someone who likes a challenge and who is accustomed to beating the system," Mr. Natkin said. "The arrangement with Tsinghua is probably one of many ways he has come to believe it may help his company in China."

Mr. Zuckerberg was appointed to the board in 2014 and attended its annual meeting in 2015.

In addition to Mr. Zuckerberg, Western business leaders present included Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook, Blackstone Group Chief Executive Stephen A. Schwarzman and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. During the meeting, Mr. Xi said he was looking forward to U.S. President Donald Trump's visit to China next month, and said China wanted to deepen its cooperation with the U.S. and resolve their conflicts, according to CCTV's evening broadcast.

Mr. Xi said he hoped that the U.S. executives would "develop more mutually beneficial cooperation with the Chinese side, and present China in an objective and rounded way to the world."

Xiao Xiao and Eva Dou contributed to this article.

Write to Alyssa Abkowitz at alyssa.abkowitz@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 30, 2017 08:18 ET (12:18 GMT)