Kai-Fu Lee: Sorry, Zuck, you need a partner in China

WSJ.D Live’s panel on what U.S. tech giants can learn from Asian companies featured Kai-Fu Lee, a legendary computer scientist who’s currently investing but has spent stints at Apple, Google, and Microsoft. When his fellow panelist Jim Breyer of Breyer Capital brought up the energy Mark Zuckerberg has put into engaging with China—which has included not only frequent visits but, famously, learning Mandarin—Lee praised Zuckerberg’s efforts but went on to throw a wet blanket over the whole idea of Facebook having a real shot at catching on in China, at least in its existing form.

“China has evolved into a totally different market with a different software stack,” he said. (In the case of social networking, that stack consists of WeChat, which is as dominant in its home country as Facebook is here.) Instead of entering China on their own, Lee advises that Facebook and other Western internet companies “find a Chinese partner to handle all the challenging external-facing government PR issues, as well as package the product and run with it.”

For titans like Facebook, he acknowledged, “this is really hard to swallow.” But he made a pretty compelling case that it’s their only real option.