SHANGHAI — Facebook and many of its apps have been blocked in China for years. To change that, Mark Zuckerberg has made a big point of meeting with Chinese politicians, reading stodgy Communist Party propaganda, studying Mandarin and — perhaps more daunting — speaking it in public.
Now the social network is trying a different way into China: by authorizing the release of a new app there that does not carry the Facebook name.
Facebook approved the May debut of a photo-sharing app, called Colorful Balloons, in China, according to a person with knowledge of the company’s plans, who declined to be named because the information is politically sensitive. The app, which has not previously been reported, shares the look, function and feel of Facebook’s Moments app. It was released through a separate local company and without any hint that the social network is affiliated with it.
The stealthy and anonymous release of an app by a major foreign technology company in China is unprecedented. It shows the desperation — and frustration — of global tech companies as they try to break into the world’s largest online market. It also underscores the lengths they are willing to go, and their increasing acceptance of the idea that standards for operating in China are different from elsewhere.
China’s internet censorship — which includes making some news websites inaccessible and passing rules that result in app removals — has left big players like Facebook and Google on the sidelines of a major boom there. The country boasts an audience of more than 700 million internet users who buy $750 billion of stuff online a year, but they are served by local tech companies that have developed their own way of doing business that can seem exotic to Silicon Valley.
Facebook hopes it can learn and potentially assimilate those ways. Yet the social network was banned in China in 2009, followed by its photo-sharing app Instagram in 2014, and its messaging app WhatsApp was partially blocked last month. While the company has more than two billion users around the world, Mr. Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, has often asked where its next billion users will come from.
Now Colorful Balloons gives the Silicon Valley company a way to see how Chinese users digitally share information with their friends or interact with their favorite social media platforms.
“We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country in different ways,” Facebook said in a statement.
It is unclear whether China’s various internet regulators were aware of the app’s existence. The under-the-table approach could cause Facebook…