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Facebook friends Baidu … and Beijing?

In December, following Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg’s visit to Beijing to hobnob with China’s tech elite, I wrote a piece for FP asking, "Will Facebook Friend China?" Now Bloomberg is reporting the answer is "yes." Facebook Inc. has signed an agreement with Baidu Inc. to set up a social-networking website in China, Sohu.com reported, citing ...

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In December, following Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg’s visit to Beijing to hobnob with China’s tech elite, I wrote a piece for FP asking, "Will Facebook Friend China?"

Now Bloomberg is reporting the answer is "yes."

Facebook Inc. has signed an agreement with Baidu Inc. to set up a social-networking website in China, Sohu.com reported, citing unidentified employees at the Chinese search-engine company.

The agreement followed several meetings between Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and Baidu CEO Robin Li, Sohu.com reported on its website today. The China website won’t be integrated with Facebook’s international service, and the start date is not confirmed, according to the report.

This would give Facebook access, at last, to China’s 420 million-and counting Internt users. (Currently the site is block in China.) Though details are limited, a few things stand out.

It appears that the company intends to create a closed-loop version of Facebook for China — in other words, a site that is not integrated with Facebook writ large and its 500 million international users. This would allow for simpler enforcement of China’s censorship policies, including bans on content critical of the government as well anything deemed to fall under the broad and easily manipulated category of "pornography" (which the government has recently, dubiously, sited as a reason for arresting artist Ai Weiwei). For tech-watchers who’ve long speculated that China would try to create a closed Internet unto itself, this is perhaps the clearest example yet of that coming to pass — and also a sign that leading international companies may be willing to comply.

Whether or not Facebook or its partner, Chinese search-engine giant Baidu, would be directly involved in policing the site (i.e., taking down offensive content and keeping records on certain user behavior — available for government inspection upon demand) remains unclear. 

What’s in it for Baidu? Spokeperson Kaiser Kuo hasn’t revealed much to the media, but Ming Zhao, an analyst for Susquehanna Financial, wrote in a note to clients, "We view Facebook entering China as a positive headline for Baidu shares," according to the International Business Times. Zhao went on to note that Baidu — essentially the Google of China — needs help more effectively breaking into social media (just like its Mountain View-based counterpart).

Whether or not Chinese users would flock to a new Facebook site is anyone’s bet. There are already equivalent social-networking sites in China, such as 160-million users strong Renren.com; moreover, part of the appeal of Facebook (the main site) is being able to network with friends around the world, which a China-exclusive version would rule out.

But for now, if reports are accurate, it’s a bet Mark Zuckerburg looks willing to make. 

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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