Facebook’s Start-and-Stop Growth in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong – A Closer Look

Odd Facebook traffic patterns have been showing up in the main Chinese-speaking parts of the world over the past few months, based on data from Inside Facebook Gold, our data and research service covering Facebook’s growth, demographics, and monetization in global markets.

Taiwan (Republic of China) gained millions of users, and mainland China (People’s Republic of China) — where Facebook is blocked — gained hundreds of thousands of users over the course of January. Both countries then lost users in the past month, even as neighboring countries posted normal-looking traffic gains.

These anomalies are occurring as Facebook finds itself in geopolitical cross-currents. The company has gotten new attention for the role its product has played in helping people organize protests in the Middle East, and as Chinese communist leaders are further restricting internet access in order to preserve “stability” — and as new rumors surface about deals Facebook may be doing to get into mainland China.

We’ll examine possible explanations for the traffic changes further down. First, the numbers.

The Growth of Greater China

Mainland China itself went from 119,000 monthly active Facebook users at the beginning of January to 694,000 monthly actives at the beginning of February, even though the site is blocked in the country. It had not had any significant growth since the summer of 2009, when it had plummeted from 1 million users to 100,000 users — almost certainly due to a nearly complete block. Since then, with the average month has showed somewhere around 50,000 and 100,000 MAU. The winter growth has not continued, in any case. As of March 1st, the country has fallen slightly to 659,000 MAU.

Meanwhile, Taiwan, the island nation that the mainland Chinese government claims as its own, gained 3.08 million new users over the course of January to reach 11.8 million at the beginning of last month. Before then, growth had mostly been slower, ranging from the ten-thousands to a few hundred thousand new users each month in 2010. However, a surge appears to have started in October, when it grew on Facebook by nearly 400,00, and continued in November and December, adding around half a million new users each month.

But traffic dropped over February to almost exactly 10 million monthly actives. It’s unusual to see the equivalent of a third of a country’s existing Facebook user base join in a single month, then fall off by two-thirds of that growth in the next month.

In contrast to the other two places, Hong Kong didn’t show anything surprising. Facebook is not blocked in this “special administrative region” of China, but growth is about what one would expect, given that more than half of its total population is now on the site (typically, countries slow down when they reach those levels of penetration). It grew from 2.83 million to 3.70 million new users over the past twelve months, but then only 21,000 new users in January. It gained an even smaller number: only around 5,000 new users.

For developers, marketers, and anyone else interested in the Chinese-speaking market, these changes are significant. Greater China (defined as these three countries) accounts for the majority of the 16 million Chinese speakers on Facebook; out of all countries with significant Chinese-speaking Facebook user groups, South Korea, Malaysia and the United States account for most of the rest, at above one million users apiece.

So, to review: Facebook had unusual, hard-to-explain growth in January, that more than dried up in February. What’s going on?

The Possible Explanations for the Starts and Stops

Proxy Servers

Social game developers, international residents and outwardly-interested Chinese citizens have long used proxy servers to access Facebook from the mainland, essentially spoofing their internet connection locations to make it appear as though they were located in other countries. That’s not a new trend, and anyway such traffic wouldn’t show up for China, it’d show up for the country where the users pretended to be.