Facebook Inc. chief Mark Zuckerberg was spotted in Beijing on Monday touring the campus of China’s No. 1 search engine, Baidu, ending months of anticipation as to when he would visit China, the world’s largest Internet market.
Baidu confirmed the meeting between Zuckerberg and Robin Li, the search engine’s 42-year-old, American-educated chief executive, who has stewarded the site into the second-largest Internet company in China. Grainy photographs of the two men were posted on a microblog belonging to a Baidu employee.
A Baidu spokesman declined to say what the two tech moguls discussed in the meeting, which also was attended by Zuckerberg’s Chinese American girlfriend Priscilla Chan.
“They’ve known each other for some time,” Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo said of Li and Zuckerberg. “It does not foretell Facebook’s entry into China.”
Facebook, like Twitter and YouTube, has been blocked by censors in China since 2009. China’s government is extremely sensitive about social media because of its ability to organize groups rapidly. However, more Chinese are downloading software that allows them to evade censors and access the banned sites.
For weeks, Chinese have been joking about Zuckerberg’s visit because his hugely popular site is blocked in China.
"We warmly welcome the founder of '404 NOT Found' and 'Mr. The Search Result Cannot be Displayed’ to visit China!" read one post, a reference to the error messages Internet users often receive when they visit banned sites in China.
Another poster suggested that the Zuckerberg biopic “The Social Network” be renamed in China “The Connection Has Been Reset” -– another error message commonly found here.
Zuckerberg, who was recently named Time magazine’s person of the year, has been learning Mandarin in preparation for the trip. He and Chan ordinarily take a two-week trip abroad, according to a September profile of Zuckerberg in the New Yorker magazine.
Though the meeting with Baidu will spark speculation over Facebook’s ambitions in a country with 440 million Internet users, China remains a highly competitive market for social media. Its largest Internet company, Tencent Holdings, boasts 637 million accounts for its instant messaging service, QQ. By comparison, Facebook has 500 million accounts globally.
Oak Pacific Interactive, the parent company of Facebook clone Renren, is planning a $1-billion initial public offering in Hong Kong, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Facebook launched a Chinese-language site in 2008, about a year before it was blocked. If Zuckerberg is interested in regaining access to China, he will need a sound relationship with the government officials who bedeviled Google. Ironically, Zuckerberg and Chinese censors have something in common: being criticized for violating privacy.
-- David Pierson