China

Meet the billionaire mayor of China’s glorious digital ghost town

Wang Xing is CEO of tech titan Meituan. Why is he still obsessed with an obscure social media platform he founded a generation ago?

Meet the billionaire mayor of China’s glorious digital ghost town

Wang Xing speaks in Sydney in 2009.

X|Media|Lab via Wikimedia Commons

The 42-year-old Wang Xing isn't just the billionaire founder and CEO of Meituan, the third-largest listed internet company in China, which provides everything from store reviews to food delivery to ride-hailing.

He's also an obsessive user of a failed 14-year old social media website he built, Fanfou. As a commercial enterprise, it's a dud: It's a digital ghost town with no revenue, no employees and no way for new users to join. But as a private social network for Wang, free from the pressures of the outside world, it's become a great place to be.

Wang doesn't use Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, all of which are blocked in China yet routinely used by elites (and the Chinese government) via VPNs. He has a blank profile on Weibo, the popular microblogging site in China, although 6 million people still follow him there. He has no public account on social giant WeChat.

By contrast, since 2007, Wang has posted over 16,000 times on Fanfou, averaging about three posts per day for 14 years. Wang's Fanfou bio reads: "If I haven't seen, thought of, or done anything worth mentioning on Fanfou today, then this day was wasted."

Wang's Fanfou feed is personable and relatable, stuffed with nuggets of trivia and out-of-nowhere quotes from Jack Welch or Peter Thiel. Sometimes Wang gets personal. On Feb. 3, he wrote, "I came home tonight and noticed my shoes. They were the same pair I wore to my grandma's funeral eight years ago."

Wang only occasionally reminds his followers that he moonlights as the busy CEO of a major technology company. Fewer than 1% of his 16,000 posts directly mention Meituan.

To Wang's followers, this separates him from other Chinese tech heavyweights. "You have the opportunity to get close to him. He is a real person. For all the other [tech elites], you can only see them through reporting or videos, but there's never the chance for close interaction," Ma Jing, the founder of a medical tech startup in China, told Protocol. On Fanfou, fans call him "the village chief." To Ma, "it feels like we are a big collective, a big family."

This suits Wang just fine. His account functions as a semi-private diary, one he shares with a fixed, friendly audience, disinclined to share his words elsewhere. Fanfou offers Wang the kind of hard-to-find balance between exposure, intimacy and self-expression that billionaires crave — particularly Chinese moguls mindful of the government's wrath.

Failure, the mother of success

Much of this is the accidental result of Fanfou's commercial failure. Government authorities shut down the pioneering microblogging website in 2009, two years after its birth and right after it reached 1 million users, reportedly for politically sensitive discussions related to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests and the ethnic conflict in Xinjiang that July.

By the time Fanfou returned 16 months later, Sina Weibo dominated the microblogging landscape, as it has ever since. Many Fanfou users never returned. In June 2018, Fanfou disabled registration for new users, but existing accounts remained. Now, a Fanfou account sells for between $7 and $20 online. Many are marketed as "an entry pass to read Wang Xing's posts."

Today, Fanfou has no employees. The website looks like it's from a decade ago. A few Meituan employees reportedly maintain it as a side project. In an email, Meituan told Protocol that "Meituan and Fanfou operate as two independent companies." Fanfou has no app, but loyal fans have built mobile versions of Fanfou on their own.

Ma, the tech founder, has made her Fanfou account only visible to followers. She checks the site daily and interacts with about a dozen friends who are still there. In late January, she joined dozens of Fanfou users in a Clubhouse chatroom to reminisce about Fanfou's heyday.

There's an odd resemblance between Clubhouse and Fanfou, even though one is entering a growth stage while the other is in terminal decline. Like Clubhouse's early users in China, many Fanfou-ers were tech industry insiders or urban elites who hopped on the website before the concept of microblogging made it to the general public.

When the hype had passed, those who stayed on Fanfou did so because its obscurity was a feature, not a bug: They could continue to post without being seen by the masses. By comparison, Weibo has over half a billion monthly active users, meaning posts can elicit responses from people with vastly different views. Posts can also be shared widely, bringing unwelcome government scrutiny.

Big brother, far away

To a high-profile figure like Wang, Fanfou's intimacy connotes safety. When he posts on the website he created, he's talking to a small, generally like-minded circle. Some of his scribblings might cross the vague red line that triggers online censorship elsewhere, but Wang knows what happens on Fanfou won't travel far, and he has confidence his fans won't turn against him.

Many without Fanfou accounts are curious to find out what Meituan's CEO thinks. Several bots on Twitter, WeChat and Weibo have appeared that manually or automatically reshare Wang's posts. But Wang is apparently not a fan of the attention. Most such bots have suspended services. In one instance, attorneys representing Fanfou asked the person behind it to stop.

Wang's concerns are not imaginary. Famed investors like Charles Xue and Wang Gongquan, both wealthy celebrity businessmen and microbloggers with millions of followers in China, have learned hard lessons about the limits of their power when imprisoned for social media posts authorities deemed too political.

And of course, no website based in China is ever free from the censor's eye. On Fanfou, users receive a warning when a scheduled post contains sensitive words, and retroactive deletion still happens. Wang has mentioned the issue, obliquely. On the evening of Dec. 30, 2020, he wrote: "Sometimes Fanfou erases the marks I've carved. Fine." Another user replied, "So it happens even when you are talking to yourself on the website you built."

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins