Facebook has reportedly signed an agreement with Baidu, China's most popular search engine, to set up a social networking website in China, according to Chinese press. The news comes from Sohu.com, another search engine company headquartered in Beijing (via the Chinese website DoNews), which cites unidentified employees at Baidu. Unsurprisingly, Baidu and Facebook are both declining to comment.
According to the report, the Chinese version of Facebook won't be integrated with Facebook.com or any other flavor of the international service, and the launch date has not been set yet. Joint ventures need to be approved by the Chinese government, so even if this proves true, we won't be seeing the new Chinese social network for quite a while.
It's been rumored for a while now that Facebook has been discussing with potential partners about how to enter the Chinese market. That being said, I did not see any concrete information claimed in any rumors (Facebook was apparently just exploring its options), until now.
A potential deal between Baidu and Facebook makes sense. Facebook needs a big local partner to break into the huge Chinese market while Baidu needs help to counter the growing Chinese social network Tencent. Baidu would understandably rather have the most successful company in social on its side than build its own social network from the ground up.
In December 2010, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited China, which obviously received a lot of media coverage. Two months later, the number of Facebook users in China septupled. This is despite the fact that Facebook is banned in the country by the ruling Communist Party.
At the time, It was known that Zuckerberg spoke with Baidu CEO Robin Li but neither company disclosed the reason for the visit. Zuckerberg also held meetings with other Chinese companies including China Mobile and Sina. Officially, Zuckerberg was on vacation in China, but given that it's the world's biggest Internet market by number of users, and Facebook is the world's biggest social network by number of users, we knew there was more to it.