Zuckerberg Speaks Chinese, Internet Soils Itself

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Mark Zuckerberg may only own one hoodie, as far as we can tell, but he is multilingual. The Facebook founder was interviewed at business school Tsinghua University today and answered all questions in Mandarin, to the delight of the audience and the relief of Renee Zellweger, who is probably happy that the Internet now has something to talk about besides her face.

(Here’s the full transcript from Drake Ballew, growth manager of Unbabel.)

The background of the talk is that Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management (SEM) recently appointed Zuckerberg to the school’s advisory board (in addition to Zuckerberg, the board also includes other tech luminaries like Tim Cook and Terry Gou, the founder and CEO of Foxconn Technology Group).

It’s not certain exactly how Zuckerberg’s newly minted position on Tsinghua’s board will help Facebook in China, where the social network is blocked. But his Chinese Q&A surely ingratiated him with a lot of people.

When Apple CEO Cook joined the board back in October 2013, it was soon after he said that the company hoped to cultivate closer ties with China and while it was negotiating for the license that would eventually allow the iPhone to run on China Mobile, the largest carrier in the world.

It’s interesting to note that SEM’s advisory board also includes several key politicians, including Wang Qishan, the Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist party’s anti-corruption body; Chen Yuan, the Vice Chairperson of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC); Ma Kai, one of China’s fourth vice premiers; and Zhou Xiaochuan, the Vice Chairman of the 12th National Committee of the CPPCC.

While Chinese entrepreneurs are expected to be fluent in English if they try to break into Western markets (Jack Ma, for example, was an English teacher before he founded Alibaba and has given lengthy interviews in the U.S.), it’s certainly rarer to see American executives returning the favor.

Reaction to Zuckerberg’s interview was mixed. Some people were impressed, but others thought he sounded like a toddler. One commentator said that the audience and moderator basically reacted to Zuckerberg “like a dog walking on its hind legs.”

I think the more critical opinions are a bit unfair, especially considering that Zuckerberg only started learning Chinese a few years ago. Sure, he speaks haltingly and his tones are a little bit off, but he is able to joke, answer questions quickly, and discuss statistical figures, something that’s difficult for people to do in a language they only learned as an adult. I’m a native passive speaker and have lived in Taiwan for eight years. I consider myself reasonably fluent, but I still refuse to speak Mandarin in front of an audience, so I give Zuckerberg props for his commendable effort.

Zuckerberg said he learned Mandarin in order to communicate with his wife Priscilla’s paternal grandmother, but his performance earlier today may help Facebook gain more diplomatic and business footholds in China. He also said he had traveled to several countries in order to see how more people can get Internet access (and presumably sign onto Facebook), a goal in-line with the company’s Internet.org initiative, and gave SEM’s students advice on how to start a company (the usual “don’t start a company just to be a founder, do it to pursue a vision; trust your vision; don’t give it up etc.” pablum).

When asked what Facebook’s plans in China are (a question that was greeted with laughter and applause), Zuckerberg said that “Facebook is already in China” because the site has given Chinese businesses a marketing tool for items like mobile phones. “We hope to connect other countries to China,” he said.