By Clay Chandler
April 14, 2018

 

The Internet had a grand time this week mocking members of the U.S. Senate for revealing in their questions to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg how little they understand about technology. There was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the senior statesman from my home state, who couldn’t imagine how a “free service” like Facebook could possibly make money. Or Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who seemed flummoxed by the idea that Facebook could read “e-mails” about the movie Black Panther sent via WhatsApp. And how about Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), who wanted to know whether Twitter is to Facebook as Chevy is to Ford?

But for me, the biggest howler came during Zuck’s exchange with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who apparently thought he was opening with a softball question: “Mr. Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are,” he began. “Only in America, would you guys agree with that?”

The query seemed to leave Zuckerberg momentarily perplexed. His reply: “Senator, mostly in America.”

The senator doubled down. “You couldn’t do this is China, right?”

Zuckerberg’s response, which you can watch here, is priceless. You can see him, at 0:17-0:19, genuinely struggle to keep a straight face before eventually mustering a droll understatement. “Well, uh….well, senator, there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.” But Sullivan just blunders ahead. “Right but, you’re supposed to answer ‘yes’ to this question. Okay, come on, I’m trying to help you, right? Gimme a break. You’re in front of a bunch of senators. The answer is ‘yes’!”

You can’t help wonder what’s going through Zuckerberg’s head at that moment. In the video of the exchange, the hearing room erupts into laughter. Zuckerberg laughs, too, and shrugs awkwardly, as if recognizing the infinite futility of attempting to inject facts and reason into a congressional hearing. Give him credit for restraint. Sullivan’s question wasn’t just clueless, it was monumentally clueless—which Mark Zuckerberg knows as well as anyone.

At Fortune, we’ve been writing at length about the state of innovation and technological development in China. Even a cursory glance at that coverage (not to mention that of our competitors) would dispel the mind-boggling arrogance of Sullivan’s assertion that “only America” can create dynamic Internet companies. We’ve chronicled companies like Huawei Technologies, which last year filed more patent applications than any other company in the world; Tencent Holdings, whose WeChat app allows 900 million Chinese users to chat, shop, pay, play and do just about anything else; Baidu, which has vowed to have autonomous vehicles ready for sale in China long before Tesla or Google are ready to roll out their versions in the United States; and DJI, once an obscure maker of remote controls for toy helicopters and now the world’s leading manufacturer of consumer drones.

As I noted in Fortune last November, China now rivals the U.S. as one of the world’s two true technology superpowers. The founders of Alibaba and Tencent Holdings have origin stories that are every bit as compelling as that of Zuckerberg and Facebook. I would argue that today both companies are, in many ways, more innovative than Facebook, Google or Twitter.

Zuckerberg, perhaps more keenly than any other U.S. Internet mogul, knows this. He has clung tenaciously to the dream that someday his company, which has been banned in China since 2009, will be allowed to compete again there. He visits China regularly, most recently in October 2017, welcomes Chinese officials to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, and has even learned to speak Mandarin.

And yet, in both Silicon Valley and Washington, the delusion that “only America” can innovate or create “behemoth” tech companies persists. That’s one reason Fortune has launched the Fortune Global Technology Forum, which will be held this year on November 29-30 in Guangzhou, China. The forum will provide a unique opportunity for business and government leaders from around the world to meet face to face with top tech innovators from China. Sen. Sullivan, you’re invited!

More China news below.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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