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Facebook CEO Visits China's Top Search Engine



"It was just two nerds comparing notes," the spokesman said. "Keep the speculation in check."
But when those nerds happened to be the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg - recently named person of the year by Time Magazine - and Robin Li - the head of Baidu, the biggest search engine in China - there was no way a quiet business lunch was going to remain quiet.
Moments after Zuckerberg and Li were seen strolling through the canteen in Baidu's Beijing headquarters overnight, an employee posted a blurred mobile-phone photograph of them on her microblog.
Mark Zuckerberg's meeting with the CEO of China's largest search engine prompts speculation about Facebook's prospects in the country. 

The image spread quickly, first via Chinese social networking sites, then on to the English side of the internet, prompting speculation that the two IT players may be planning to cross the divide.
Zuckerberg has made no secret of his desire to expand in China, where Facebook has been blocked by the government censors' Great Firewall since 2008. On a recent global map of Facebook users, China appeared as a black spot, though it has a bigger internet population than any country on Earth.
Zuckerberg's current holiday is his first known trip behind the Great Firewall. But he has started taking Mandarin lessons, and recently asked Facebook members for tips on places to visit with his girlfriend, Priscilla Chan.
In a recent speech at Stanford University, he said the company may turn its attention to China in a year if it can first crack Japan, South Korea and Russia.
"How can you connect the whole world if you leave out a billion people?" he asked then. "Our theory is that if we can show that we as a western company can succeed in a place where no other country has, then we can start to figure out the right partnerships we would need to succeed in China on our terms."
Zuckerberg appears to have found common ground with Li, an internet entrepreneur who has completed a postgraduate course in the US.
Since then, he has shrugged off Google and Yahoo, as well as criticism about a supposedly weak stance on censorship and copyright piracy, to make Baidu the dominant force in the Chinese search engine market. In an earlier interview with the Guardian, Li said Baidu would one day become an international rival to Microsoft and Google.
Since the two men were introduced, at Palo Alto in autumn 2009, they have met twice before today, and are said to have hit it off.
Kaiser Kuo, Baidu's director of international communications, said he was not privy to the details of their latest discussion. "As far as I know, this was two nerds comparing notes," he said.
Any talks are likely to be exploratory. Given the furore over censorship that followed Google's decision to curtail its Chinese search engine earlier this year, it is unlikely Facebook and Baidu would like to draw further attention to the issue.
China already has two social networks that are Facebook imitators: Kaixin, with 80 million users, and Renren, with 150 million. These lack the economic clout and global reach of Zuckerberg's company but they do have the advantages of language and cultural awareness, as well as the protection of the Great Firewall.
To tackle them and other big Chinese platforms, such as QQ, Facebook would probably have to move inside the firewall and accept greater censorship.
"If Facebook wanted to enter China, it would not have to change its function, because netizens here are used to copycats already, but it must, like other international internet companies, obey Chinese laws and regulations," said Hu Yong, a professor at Beijing University's School of Journalism and Communication.
The Guardian

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