Imagine buying shares in a company that could be closed down overnight.
That is in some ways what Renren (人人網), dubbed the Facebook of China, asked investors to do.
Last week, investors complied: Renren raised US$743.4 million in an initial public offering (IPO) and its shares jumped 29 percent on their first day of trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
However, Renren’s operations, which include social networking, gaming and online commerce, walk a thin line of compliance with strict Chinese regulations around freedom of information — and if they cross the line, the consequences could be very severe.
“People at any social network in China that is going to be successful are going to be very sensitive to playing the game by the rules,” said Dixon Doll, cofounder and general partner of venture capital firm DCM, which is an investor in Renren. “You’re going to have to pay attention to the will of the Chinese government because they are going to ... keep a very close look on the kinds of activities that go on.”
China’s rules for sharing information online have become stricter since authoritarian regimes across North Africa and the Middle East have been toppled or challenged by protesters.
STAMPING OUT DISSENT
The Chinese Communist Party leadership is determined to stamp out even the hint of such protests immediately. It learned a harsh lesson in 1989 when mass demonstrations threatened its control and triggered a bloody military crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
“They may regard [Renren] as a friendly enterprise, but if an enterprise turns unfriendly, I think they would cut the cord,” said Donald Straszheim, senior managing director of China Research at International Strategy & Investment Group.
China has already blocked social networking sites Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and YouTube, while Google Inc essentially pulled out of China last year after run-ins with the government over censorship and hacking.
The government routinely shuts sites down or more commonly blocks content it sees as a security risk — and recently, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) called for yet more oversight and “mechanisms to guide online public opinion.”
However, Beijing also sees social media as a valuable gauge of public sentiment and a way to show the Chinese it is sensitive to what they want, said Michal Meidan, a China analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
In this peculiar environment, China-bred Internet ventures have adapted, learning to skillfully navigate the system.
In the case of a company like Renren, that means blocking whatever you are told to block by the authorities and also by self censoring, which means reading the political winds so that you block other material you fear could be controversial.
“It’s a constant game of cat and mouse,” Meidan said.
Renren itself acknowledges the tenuousness of its position in the risk factors section of its IPO prospectus. While these disclosures are notorious for listing the most extreme risks, in this case, they may well be worth a closer reading.
The company says it is prohibited from allowing content that, among other things, “impairs the national dignity of China,” is “superstitious” or “socially destabilizing.”
If Renren fails to comply, which would be determined by the authorities, the company says its business could be shut down.