Mark Zuckerberg's closely-watched, 2010 trip to China isn't the only reason why Facebook may be the safe bet on which of the major U.S.-based social networks will be the first to get the go-ahead to operate in China.
Access to Facebook, Google+ and Twitter are all currently banned by the Chinese government. Google may be renewing expansion efforts in China, but a recent crackdown on popular Chinese microblogging sites designed to mimic Twitter suggest that if any of the big three get the permission to operate in China, the nod will go to Facebook.
A Chinese pilot program in five cities that requires microbloggers to register their real names is expected to be expanded. Known as weibo sites, about half of China's 513 million Internet users access the sites, and their use has quadrupled in the past year.
"On the one hand, microblogs can reflect the social situation and public opinion, and broadcast a positive public voice," Wang Chen, the minister in charge of the State Council Information Office, told Reuters "At the same time, microblogs... can make it easy to disseminate a few irrational voices, negative public opinion and harmful information."
The Chinese pilot programs require new weibo users to register their real names before they can post, and would eventually require existing users to register their real names as well. The sites have frequently been a source of information about government wrongdoing within China.
China has given no time frame of when it or even if it will open up to U.S.-based social networks, but the pilot program seems to favor a social network that already requires users to register with their real names. Twitter famously allows people to sign up anonymously, and Google+ was banned in China one day after it was launched last summer. But Facebook has tight rules on users registering its real name, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly planning another trip to China.
Despite the tight rules on free speech, which palso prohibit Internet users from saying anything negative about the ruling party, China remains the world's second biggest economy and a largely-untapped market for major U.S. tech companies. Last year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told Time "it's impossible to think about connecting the whole world right now without also connecting China."