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

Gavin Newsom shows crypto some California love

“A more flexible approach is needed,” Gov. Newsom said in rejecting a bill that would require crypto companies to get a state license.

Strong bipartisan support wasn’t enough to convince Newsom that requiring crypto companies to register with the state’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation is the smart path for California.

Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Vox Media

The Digital Financial Assets Law seemed like a legislative slam dunk in California for critics of the crypto industry.

But strong bipartisan support — it passed 71-0 in the state assembly and 31-6 in the Senate — wasn’t enough to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom that requiring crypto companies to register with the state’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation is the smart path for California.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Workplace

Slack’s rallying cry at Dreamforce: No more meetings

It’s not all cartoon bears and therapy pigs — work conferences are a good place to talk about the future of work.

“We want people to be able to work in whatever way works for them with flexible schedules, in meetings and out of meetings,” Slack chief product officer Tamar Yehoshua told Protocol at Dreamforce 2022.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dreamforce is primarily Salesforce’s show. But Slack wasn’t to be left out, especially as the primary connector between Salesforce and the mainstream working world.

The average knowledge worker spends more time using a communication tool like Slack than a CRM like Salesforce, positioning it as the best Salesforce product to concern itself with the future of work. In between meeting a therapy pig and meditating by the Dreamforce waterfall, Protocol sat down with several Slack execs and conference-goers to chat about the shifting future.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

LA is a growing tech hub. But not everyone may fit.

LA has a housing crisis similar to Silicon Valley’s. And single-family-zoning laws are mostly to blame.

As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers, whose high salaries put them at an advantage in both LA's renting and buying markets.

Photo: Nat Rubio-Licht/Protocol

LA’s tech scene is on the rise. The number of unicorn companies in Los Angeles is growing, and the city has become the third-largest startup ecosystem nationally behind the Bay Area and New York with more than 4,000 VC-backed startups in industries ranging from aerospace to creators. As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers. The city is quickly becoming more and more like Silicon Valley — a new startup and a dozen tech workers on every corner and companies like Google, Netflix, and Twitter setting up offices there.

But with growth comes growing pains. Los Angeles, especially the burgeoning Silicon Beach area — which includes Santa Monica, Venice, and Marina del Rey — shares something in common with its namesake Silicon Valley: a severe lack of housing.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

Policy

SFPD can now surveil a private camera network funded by Ripple chair

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy that the ACLU and EFF argue will further criminalize marginalized groups.

SFPD will be able to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks in certain circumstances.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ripple chairman and co-founder Chris Larsen has been funding a network of security cameras throughout San Francisco for a decade. Now, the city has given its police department the green light to monitor the feeds from those cameras — and any other private surveillance devices in the city — in real time, whether or not a crime has been committed.

This week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan to allow SFPD to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks during life-threatening emergencies, large events, and in the course of criminal investigations, including investigations of misdemeanors. The decision came despite fervent opposition from groups, including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the police department’s new authority will be misused against protesters and marginalized groups in a city that has been a bastion for both.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Latest Stories
Bulletins