The big question still lingering after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was caught last week wandering the streets of Shanghai with girlfriend Priscilla Chan in tow was whether or not the entrepreneur was in China testing the waters for a possible raising of the ban on his product which has been in place since 2009.
Considering the Chinese government then just last weekend created a stir by shutting down for four days 16 of the nation's most popular social networking sites -- among them Webo.com and QQ.com -- for allowing posts about an unsubstantiated coup in the capital Beijing, the reality is that a free and open Facebook in the country would still seem a distant dream.
The closest China has to its own version of Facebook is Renren, which works under the close watch of the government but recently announced that it still had 147 million active users by the end of last year, up from 110 million at the end of 2010.
The majority of the users when it first appeared back in 2005 (when it was known as Xiaonei) were college students or the college-educated but its popularity has spread out among the general Chinese population -- one reason the Chinese government has been so keen to keep an eye on the content posted on the site as it continues to curb criticism or what it labels "rumors."
While Renren certainly looks much like Facebook on screen, and offers such functions as a similar photo-sharing option, there are some major differences between what the two platforms present. Chief among these is Renren's journal application -- which allows users basically to create their own blog -- and the fact that Renren users can see who has visited their profiles.
Also, an estimated 50 percent of Renren's daily users access its functions through mobile phones -- and their main activity when they do is playing games -- so the site is heavily into developing functions it says will give users "local recommendations or coupons based on their location."
Overall in China there are now an estimated 500 million internet users and they have leapt on the chance to tap into such other social networking sites as Sina's Weibo.com (a service known as China's Twitter) and Tencent's QQ.com (the country's equivalent to MSN). Meanwhile, mainland China's version of YouTube is Youku.com.
Weibo and QQ each boast an estimated 300 million users respectively, while it is estimated around 263 million Chinese internet users like to tune in each month to see what Youku has to offer.
Many internet users across China have sought to escape the government's reach by linking themselves up to a virtual private network (VPN) which offers unfiltered access from anywhere on the planet -- and is the one and only way those living in the country are currently able to open a Facebook account.