It is unclear whether China’s various internet regulators were aware of the app’s existence. The under-the-table approach could cause Facebook new difficulties with a Chinese government that has maintained strict oversight and control over foreign tech companies.
“It’s not a mere business thing,” said Teng Bingsheng, a professor of strategic management at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. “It’s politics.”
The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Before the release of Colorful Balloons, Facebook had taken an unusually high-profile approach to courting China.
Mr. Zuckerberg had paid a series of visits to the country in recent years and become something of a celebrity there. Videos of him speaking Mandarin have gone viral, as did a photo of him jogging on a dangerously smoggy day through Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Colorful Balloons represents the opposite approach — one that is low profile.
The app was released in China by a company called Youge Internet Technology, according to a post in Apple’s app store. It is registered to an address in eastern Beijing, yet the room number listed in company registration documents could not be found amid a series of shabby, small offices on the building’s fourth floor.
According to the documents, Youge’s executive director is a woman named Zhang Jingmei. She appeared in a photo of a recent meeting between Facebook and the Shanghai government, sitting next to Wang-Li Moser, a Facebook executive whose responsibilities include building up the company’s relationship with the Chinese government. Ms. Zhang’s presence at such a high-level meeting indicated she is likely a Facebook adviser or employee.
Facebook declined to comment on Ms. Zhang’s relationship to the company, and Ms. Zhang did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.
If Facebook did little to promote Colorful Balloons in China, it did work to tailor the app to a local audience. In the rest of the world, the company’s Moments app connects users through Facebook. Colorful Balloons instead links users through China’s biggest social network, WeChat.
The app, which is designed to collate photos from a smartphone’s photo albums and then share them, does so in China with the use of a QR code, a sort of bar code that is widely used by WeChat and other apps in the country.
While photos can be shared, Facebook appears to have taken steps to ensure the app could not spread widely. For example, people who post photos from Colorful Balloons on WeChat will see a link that lets other users download Facebook’s Chinese app. But the link does not work, meaning people have to seek out Colorful Balloons in an app store instead of grabbing it from their friends, which may limit its distribution.
The risk Facebook is taking with the new app is high. The company appears to have handed over a fully functioning product to Youge for release, and has done so without indicating in any public way that it is connected to Facebook. Coming just ahead of a key meeting of the Chinese Communist Party this autumn, the secretive release of Colorful Balloons could also undermine trust between the company and the Chinese government.
Such tactics underline the degree to which Facebook is willing to experiment and break precedent to get into China. Last year, The New York Times reported Facebook had also quietly been at work on a censorship tool that could be used on a version of the social network in a place like China, where the government demands control over what is shared. The tool could suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas.
Yet even if Facebook is able to use Colorful Balloons to keep up with the Chinese market, a recent intense internet crackdown in China suggests the political winds may not soon blow in favor of the company further entering the country.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s attention to China also appears to have waned. And China’s former internet czar, Lu Wei, who had visited Facebook’s offices in 2014, has been removed from his position, making things harder for the company.
“The government’s control and surveillance of media is strict, and it is almost impossible for them to open that door,” said Mr. Teng, the Cheung Kong professor. “Although Mark Zuckerberg has visited China many times and practiced his Chinese very hard, I don’t foresee any major breakthroughs for Facebook.”