(Originally published in Campaign China)
According to reports the deal follows meetings between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Baidu CEO Robin Li and could see Facebook launch a standalone site and help it reach its billion user target.
The Chinese service will be unconnected to the Facebook’s international Facebook.com site with no integration. The lack of integration will almost certainly be a condition imposed on Facebook to meet China’s strict censorship rules. China is fearful that activists might use the service to organise dissent as has happened in other authoritarian states across the Middle East in recent months.
Both Beijing-based Baidu and Facebook have declined to comment on any deal, but according to Bloomberg Facebook has held talks with potential partners about how to enter the Chinese market. These have been “exploratory and may not result in an agreement”.
“We are currently studying and learning about China, as part of evaluating any possible approaches that could benefit our users, developers and advertisers,” Palo Alto, California- based Facebook said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg at the time of the China meetings.
Zuckerberg met with Baidu’s Li when he visited China in December. He also met with other potential Chinese partners including China Mobile and Sina Corp.
This latest report follow rumours in February that also linked it to Baidu. If Facebook does launch a Chinese language version it will be its second attempt. It tried three years ago in 2008, but the site was closed after issues with censors.
Now users trying to access the site from China receive an error message. But with around 420m internet users, the Chinese market is probably the easiest way for Facebook to reach the next significant milestone of a billion members.
In January Twitter added its seventh language with the addition of Korea.
A closed Chinese version of Facebook could help it get around sticky issues such as its use by activists (along with other social media sites) to co-ordinate protests that eventually led to the downfall of the Egyptian government.
Gary Sin, MD of ZenithOptimedia Shanghai said that if Facebook managed to open in China, it would be a good news for the media industry as its audience base is huge. However he warned: “The China market is unique and many media formats cannot be completely duplicated, for example, Sina Weibo and Twitter. It will take a very long time for China to completely open up to foreign players. Even if China does allow Facebook to form local partnerships in China, it would probably be under certain conditions.”
Arun Kumar, head of digital, Mediabrands Asia-Pacific added: “Although we have no information on the exact nature of the deal, what we can say is that Facebook is not coming to China in the form that it exists in other parts of the world as it would not comply with Chinese [censoring} laws.
Kumar added that the final product that users will see from this is possibly a different service and/or brand. “The main question comes down to what is the value that this network will bring if you remove the halo of the Facebook brand name?” he said. “Competitors are not very strong in the app environment. This is where the deal could potentially bring added value to the Chinese customers and where Facebook could monetise the opportunity.”