Now, back to soft power. Bill Bishop says that no Chinese domestic Internet firm is likely to have, any time soon, a shot at cracking the global market. I
would tend to agree, but not, as Bill says, because of the language barrier, among other reasons.
Pressed as she was by the Columbia MBAs, the Tencent/WeChat spokeswoman didn't give a straight answer about Tencent's vision for its business in America.
What exactly would Tencent and WeChat be doing in the U.S. relative to, or in comparison with, Facebook and Twitter? It sounded to me and, dare I say to
many members of the largely Chinese audience with whom I spoke afterwards, that WeChat is planning on trying to migrate its China business model to the
U.S. The trouble is that Tencent/WeChat's China model seems to be defined by an ability to operate a giant social network of message exchange that official
censors in Beijing appear less displeased with than they are with, say, weibo. (How else could they be confident they'd avoid the proposed tax?)
Due to the set up of weibo, the generic term (singular and plural) for "microblogs" operated by Chinese companies such as web portals Sina, Sohu
and Netease -- and even by the Chinese Communist Party flagship newspaper the People's Daily -- users can share whole, dynamic online conversations about, say,
human rights or sex with tens of millions of viewers at once...until the censors swoop down, that is. Which, often, is quickly. Despite the censors, weibo,
for now, is the preferred social network of Chinese people interested in spreading information, sometimes sensitive in nature, far and wide and lightning
quick. WeChat, on the other hand, seems to me to be trying to meet the aspirations of China's upwardly mobile, it's MBAs, shall we say, by appealling to
their reason and asking them to use a more exclusive network, one on which they'll be less likely to rock the boat, having, as they do, more to lose if
their online messages upset social stability.
But can a Chinese Internet company whose very culture is to operate comfortably with the idea that ideas themselves are not for everybody survive in a
country like the U.S. where ideas are free for every single body? There seemed to me last week at Columbia to be a sense of great doubt in the roomful of
Chinese MBAs about WeChat's chances in America, despite the fact that most of the (largely bilingual) guests in the room raised their hands to say they
were users of the platform. How, I wondered, could a company whose public relations department never in roughly five years of calling from my prior base in
Beijing once returned my emails or phone calls with substantive answers to my questions, expect to survive in as transparent and competitive a business
environment as exists the U.S.?
Well, putting out a spokeswoman -- I'll spare her public mention of her name just yet -- is a good start and I applauded her bravery for facing down the sharp
crowd of Columbia entrepreneurs. Nearly every question at the end of the Chinese social media panel I hosted was for the Tencent/WeChat rep, despite there
being five other guests there with me in the spotlight. And she didn't blink and she spoke plainly, if not always with the greatest detail. That, cynically
spoken, is the beginning of the inkling of soft power.