Free speech?

A bad week for Facebook

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg meets Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma, at the China Development Forum in Beijing

Facebook’s ‘react’ function allows its users to display sad, angry and shocked emoticons. And for the company’s critics in China, they were all appropriate in the wake of the death of a Chinese national working for the social media giant last month, and the firing of another one shortly afterwards.

Qin Chen, a 38 year-old employee, jumped to his death from the fourth floor of Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters on September 19. A graduate of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, he joined the company as a software engineer. In the days following Chen’s suicide, individuals who claimed to have known him came forward to speculate on why he could have come to the decision to take his own life.

Some of the reasons offered: workplace bullying, Facebook’s ‘intense’ working environment, a poor performance review and visa concerns that had burdened him with family pressures.

One colleague who felt personally affected by Chen’s suicide was Yi Yin, a 37 year-old Tsinghua University graduate who’d worked as a software engineer at Facebook since July. “The more I found out, the more I felt (I could share) his experiences,” he told media.

According to Yi, a week after Chen’s suicide, an estimated 500 people “spontaneously gathered” to shout slogans and wave banners, not only demanding an inquiry into Chen’s death, but also for the company to provide a healthier working environment.

“At the time, I did not know it was a protest. I thought it was a mourning,” Yi claimed.

Wearing his Facebook employee badge, Yi then gave interviews to ABC TV and Singtao Daily. The same evening, an email from Facebook’s human resources team urged him “to respect the privacy of the employee and his family; please do not discuss the incident with anyone especially outside the company”.

A meeting in which he clashed with HR personnel saw tensions escalate further and Yi was dismissed on October 7.

“This employee was not fired for joining a protest or talking about the recent tragedy on our campus. He was here for a matter of weeks, and showed poor judgement in a string of policy violations. We won’t stand for our employees intimidating one another,” the company explained.

But after posting his version of events on social media, Yi garnered widespread attention in China, with many netizens offering their support.

One interjected that Facebook’s behaviour was effectively racist: “Freedom of speech is just for white people. Yes, there are double standards.”

The combination of the suicide and the firing have stoked a backlash of poor PR for the US social media giant in China, and done so at a sensitive time – after all, there has been debate on both sides of the Pacific about America’s devotion to the principle of freedom of speech over a controversial tweeted comment by a senior NBA figure which upset Beijing (see this week’s “Talking Point”).

“Tech companies in Silicon Valley are almost hitting their ceilings so they have the pressure to cut jobs and increase efficiency,” Yi also told Bloomberg in a phone interview. “Chinese people usually don’t make trouble, giving the impression that we are weak and easy to pick on.”

The irony is that Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has been waging a charm offensive in China for years. In 2010 he started learning Chinese and studying China’s history. In 2014 he made an effort to talk to President Xi Jinping in Mandarin when Xi was on a trip to the US. At a White House dinner he even asked Xi to come up with a Chinese name for his soon-to-be-born daughter (conceived with his ethnically Chinese wife Priscilla Chan), although Xi politely declined.

Later Zuckerberg gave a 30-minute address – entirely in Mandarin – at Tsinghua University where he proclaimed: “I love Chinese culture very much. China is a great country.”

In what many of Zuckerberg’s critics considered as a step too far, a couple of years ago Facebook was also revealed to be working on a version of its platform that allowed censors to modify content posted within China (see WiC348).

Even that concession didn’t win Zuckerberg the access to the 1.4 billion-person market he so covets (Facebook is blocked in China).

The handling of this month’s crisis over the Chinese employees has been a setback for the company’s reputation in China. Yet not everyone sees Yi as an out-and-out hero of the Han Chinese race. “Before the incident was investigated, he presented himself to the media and made negative remarks against his employer. So, he was fired and felt aggrieved? He should thank God that the company won’t sue him. Get some brains first,” wrote one of the less sympathetic netizens.

Chen’s family, speaking through a law firm, said they have met with Facebook’s representatives since his suicide: “This family is very grateful to the community for their support and encourages people with information to come forward,” they asked. “The Facebook community and members from all over the world have already lent a helping hand. We welcome anyone with information to contact us”.

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