Mark Zuckerberg, Time's newly minted Person of the Year, has kicked off a trip to China today by touring the offices of Baidu, China's most popular search engine, and sitting down to lunch with Baidu CEO Robin Li. The Facebook CEO has previously signaled his interest in China--which has blocked his website since 2009--as a critical market for expansion in his quest to knit the world together through social networking.

On Twitter, Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo cautioned, "C'mon people. Robin and Mark have known each other for a while ... Keep the speculation in check." Speculation quashed? Not so much:

  • China Represents A Giant Hole for Facebook, says Tim Bradshaw at The Financial Times: "That 1.3bn-person hole in the Facebook network was illustrated by the map released last week showing the blue lines connecting people around the world--leaving China almost entirely in the dark." Bradshaw wonders whether a relationship with Baidu could "break Facebook through the great firewall."
  • But It's A Risky Move, states Oliver Chiang at Forbes: Yes, China has over 1.6 billion people and around 300 million Internet users, Chiang concedes, but U.S. tech companies like Google, which left China earlier in the year, have found it a difficult place to operate and clashed with Chinese authorities over censorship issues.
  • Would Facebook Be Willing to Do What Google Wasn't? asks Max Read at Gawker, who notes that Baidu censors its search results: "To what extent will Facebook censor itself, and what kind of government controls and backdoors will be allowed?"
  • There's Little Hope for Facebook in China, asserts Matt Marshall at VentureBeat. The Chinese government would be very wary of the social networking site, Marshall argues, since activists can use it to organize protests: "As it is, there's a firestorm of protest whenever Facebook tinkers with its privacy settings or advertising policies. Add a Chinese presence to Facebook, and things would get nastier for the young company. 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." Marshall adds that Baidu is developing its own social network, Baidu Talk, which resembles Twitter.
  • And China Is A Highly Competitive Market for Social Media, adds David Pierson at The Los Angeles Times. He notes that China's largest Internet company, Tencent Holdings, has 637 million accounts for its instant messaging service whereas Facebook has 500 million accounts globally.