In China, Facebook Tests the Waters With a Stealth App

Facebook hopes it can learn and potentially assimilate those ways. Yet the social network was banned in China in 2009, followed by its photo-sharing app Instagram in 2014, and its messaging app WhatsApp was partially blocked last month. While the company has more than two billion users around the world, Mr. Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, has often asked where its next billion users will come from.

Now Colorful Balloons gives the Silicon Valley company a way to see how Chinese users digitally share information with their friends or interact with their favorite social media platforms.

“We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country in different ways,” Facebook said in a statement.

It is unclear whether China’s various internet regulators were aware of the app’s existence. The under-the-table approach could cause Facebook new difficulties with a Chinese government that has maintained strict oversight and control over foreign tech companies.

“It’s not a mere business thing,” said Teng Bingsheng, a professor of strategic management at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. “It’s politics.”

The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

Before the release of Colorful Balloons, Facebook had taken an unusually high-profile approach to courting China.

Photo

Mark Zuckerberg meeting President Xi Jinping of China in 2015 with the country’s internet czar, Lu Wei, at the time.

Credit
Pool photo by Ted S. Warren

Mr. Zuckerberg had paid a series of visits to the country in recent years and become something of a celebrity there. Videos of him speaking Mandarin have gone viral, as did a photo of him jogging on a dangerously smoggy day through Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Colorful Balloons represents the opposite approach — one that is low profile.

The app was released in China by a company called Youge Internet Technology, according to a post in Apple’s app store. It is registered to an address in eastern Beijing, yet the room number listed in company registration documents could not be found amid a series of shabby, small offices on the building’s fourth floor.

According to the documents, Youge’s executive director is a woman named Zhang Jingmei. She appeared in a

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