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Protocol | 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."

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