Why I Spoke Up In Defense of Mark Zuckerberg?

Three weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg posted a 30-minute video of his discussion with students and faculty of Tsinghua University  School of Economics and Management in Beijing. The video has reverberated around the halls of the Internet because Zuckerberg did the whole thing in Chinese.

Within a day, China observers around the world began giving their view of the talk. One reaction unfortunately set the tone, though. The Asia Editor of Foreign Policy berated Zuckerberg for his poor Mandarin presentation, publishing a post titled: “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like A Seven-Year-Old.”

What followed in the subsequent week was an exchange between that FP editor and myself, using James Fallows’ platform at The Atlantic, over the correctness of his views. Here is my original response to the FP editor. The editor’s response to me. And then others’ views toward our conversation.

I’m going to briefly explain the two main reasons why I felt the need to respond publicly to the FP editor for his article.

First, I wasn’t really defending Zuckerberg. Rather, I was defending the thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) of people who are working hard to learn Chinese and happened to come across this article that is tearing down Zuckerberg for his imperfect Chinese. It’s discouraging to see somebody publicly ridiculed for speaking nonstandard Chinese when you yourself are working on expressing Chinese fluently.

Moreover, I know how nerve-racking and intimidating it can be to make public presentations in Chinese. I have done this dozens of times. Nowadays, I am more comfortable with Chinese use in public settings, but during earlier key learning stages (where Zuckerberg is linguistically now), it takes a good deal of courage to hold a long-form discussion in Chinese because you are inevitably subject to halts, mistakes, and confusion. Every second-language learner goes through it to some degree—granted, most don’t have to do it in front of millions like Zuckerberg. But it really is discouraging to see a second-language learner like the FP editor seemingly disregard his own learning experiences—and those of others—when he went after Zuckerberg’s Mandarin.

Second, Foreign Policy is a really respected and popular magazine. For its Asia Editor to make a special post just to aimlessly berate Zuckerberg for his Chinese is a waste of a good platform for information. As I told James Fallows in our email exchange around this issue, it’s important that the writers with large followings, like this FP editor, use their influence responsibly. Many of us will publish our views on blogs and share them with friends, but it is rare that our views will set the entire tone of a public discussion. This editor’s negativity about Zuckerberg’s Chinese caused many people to turn to the quality of his Chinese, which is really wasted news space if compared with the discussion of what his speech at Tsinghua actually meant.

Kevin Slaten

You can contact Kevin Slaten at kevinslaten@gmail.com.