Caught in Crossfire, LinkedIn to Cut Back China Presence

American networking site LinkedIn will cease its current service in China after “facing a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.” In lieu of its current social networking site, the company will establish a simpler job board without the existing functions for sharing and discussing posts or articles. LinkedIn’s withdrawal from China is the denouement of an era, leaving no major American social media companies still operating in China. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Signal, Clubhouse, and more are all effectively banned. The Microsoft-owned LinkedIn has come under fire on at least two recent fronts over its presence in China. In March, the Cyberspace Administration of China privately reprimanded it for failing to censor political content, while in October, it faced pressure over censoring foreign journalists’ profiles on its China-based platform. At The Wall Street Journal, Liza Lin and Stu Woo reported that LinkedIn retreated due to government pressure, lagging performance, and global criticism of its censorship practices:

In March, LinkedIn said it would be temporarily pausing new member sign ups in China as it ensured it was in compliance with local law. Around the same time, China’s internet regulator told LinkedIn officials to better regulate its content and gave them 30 days to do so, according to people familiar with the matter. In recent months, LinkedIn notified several China-focused human-right activists, academics and journalists that their profiles were being blocked in China, saying they contained prohibited content.

[…] LinkedIn entered China in 2014 after making rare concessions to abide by local censorship rules. Microsoft agreed to buy the platform two years later. In 2014, then-LinkedIn boss Jeff Weiner said that while the company supported freedom of expression, offering a localized version of its service in China meant adhering to local censorship requirements—a view the company has since repeated.

[…] LinkedIn faced risks to its reputation and global business model if it continued censoring on behalf of Chinese authorities, said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who advises multinational companies on operating in China. Those actions undercut the idea that LinkedIn offers a platform for free and open sharing of viewpoints, he said. [Source]

Microsoft’s censorship has been well documented. Earlier this year, a number of academics and journalists saw their LinkedIn accounts censored. Bing, another Microsoft product, stoked censorship concerns with its image search results for “tank man” on this year’s 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. The company even censored its own farewell message. LinkedIn’s English language statement claimed the company “strongly [supports] freedom of expression,” but the phrase was conspicuously absent from the company’s Chinese language statement.

The exact policies by which LinkedIn censors have remained opaque. On Tuesday, Axios published a list of questions for the company about its censorship practices:

1. Were the recently affected accounts removed because of specific, individual requests by Chinese government authorities?

[…] 2. Does LinkedIn maintain an internal list of topics considered prohibited in China?

[…] 3. What specific Chinese law did the content on the profiles break?

[…] 4. If LinkedIn has blocked accounts in China due to self-censorship, will it make the number of such actions publicly known? [Source]

LinkedIn did not directly answer the questions, instead reiterating that it “respects the laws that apply to us.”

LinkedIn’s China website was separate from the global version—a high-profile example of the “one company, two systems” approach to straddling the Chinese and global markets. Although it only managed to gain 50 million users, a minuscule figure in the Chinese market, David Wertime of Protocol writes that the platform: “became a place that both fulfilled and defied the vision of a polyglot social network that could cross cultural boundaries, and even China’s Great Firewall. It was a place for genuine, civil debate between Chinese and American colleagues and friends.” Despite such positive reviews, LinkedIn failed to win space in the Chinese market. At The New York Times, Karen Weise and Paul Mozur reported that LinkedIn’s China experiment failed in part due to the increasing authoritarianism of the government:

When LinkedIn expanded in China in 2014 with a localized service, it offered a tentative model for other major foreign internet companies looking to tap the country’s huge, lucrative and highly censored market. The company teamed with a well-connected venture capital firm, which it said would help it with government relations.

[…] “It has gotten pretty ugly around the world where authoritarian governments are forcing the private sector, particularly U.S. tech companies, into these dilemmas,” said Eileen Donahoe, executive director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator at Stanford University and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

[…] “The scale and scope of the crackdown in Beijing has been so jaw-dropping that not just domestic companies within China but even U.S. companies have now had to pull back,” said Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. “The last thing Microsoft wanted was to get into a political football situation in China.” [Source]

Former Tiananmen protest leader Zhou Fengsuo, whose LinkedIn account was censored in 2019, told South China Morning Post that the U.S. government should do more to protect companies from China’s censorship demands: “It’s really difficult for individual companies to fight this battle – they’re not in the position to do it.”


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