Is Facebook headed to China?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited the offices of a popular Chinese search engine on Monday, prompting speculation that Facebook is eyeing business opportunities in mainland China.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has toured the offices of Baidu, a popular Chinese search engine. Is Facebook turning an eye towards the market in China?

On Monday, Facebook CEO – and person of the yearMark Zuckerberg toured the offices of Baidu, the most popular search engine in China, prompting speculation that Facebook will soon begin a push into the Chinese market. Makes sense. After all, as Zuckerberg himself reportedly asked back in October, "How can you connect the whole world if you leave out 1.6 billion people?"

For now, however, reps for both Facebook – which is banned in mainland China – and Baidu are staying mum. "C'mon people. Robin and Mark have known each other for a while," Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo wrote today on Twitter, referring to Robin Li, the CEO of Baidu. "Mark's interest in China is well known. Keep the speculation in check." Not that anyone was listening to Kuo.

The Atlantic has compiled a nice little round-up of analysis on a possible Facebook expansion into China, including a Tim Bradshaw piece posted to the Financial Times site, which argues that China is the next step in the puzzle for Zuckerberg. Others disagree.

"The social networking site is arguably even more sensitive for Chinese authorities, given its potential use by activists as a tool for protest," writes Matt Marshall of VentureBeat. "So right now there’s little hope that things will change any time soon. Just imagine if Facebook were to enter China only to buckle later under Chinese government pressure. As it is, there’s a firestorm of protest whenever Facebook tinkers with its privacy settings or advertising policies."

With a Chinese edition of Facebook, "things would get nastier for the young company," Marshall continued. "Yahoo has been severely criticized in the past for handing over personal data to Chinese authorities. The trove of personal data that Facebook carries on individuals is huge."

Late last week, Bloomberg News revealed that Facebook – a site long considered to be tricky to effectively monetize – raked in approximately $2 billion in ad sales in 2010. Quoting several anonymous sources, Bloomberg reported that the 500 million Facebook users have proved an especially alluring target for a range of corporate giants, including Coca-Cola Co., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Adidas AG.

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