Protocol | China

What really brought down LinkedIn’s China play

After one compromise too many, the last U.S. social platform to operate under CCP supervision exits the stage with its tail between its legs.

A view of the Beijing skyline, tinted orange

The company's exodus was a long time coming, and not just because of its recent moves violating Western sensibilities.

Photo: Zhang Kaiyv/Unsplash

U.S.-based social networking-plus-job seeking site LinkedIn said Thursday it was exiting China — after regulators told it in March it had 30 days to clean up its content. The platform, which entered China in 2014 and was purchased by Microsoft in 2016, appeared to be trying, clumsily, to comply, with several scholars and journalists outside China complaining in recent weeks about having their Chinese-language accounts censored.

But LinkedIn has been censoring content for years, and struggling in China since its entry. The company's exodus was a long time coming, and not just because of its recent moves violating Western sensibilities.

As this author wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in February 2014, LinkedIn was surrounded by doubters in China from the day it launched. Tech blog Huxiu warned at the time of the "curse" of foreign firms that enter China with high hopes only to belatedly realize the strength of the competition within China's borders. Users in China mocked the name, "ling ying," which meant "leading elites" but sounded an awful lot like the Mandarin pronunciation of a term roughly meaning "the spirit of an unborn child." As one user said then on Weibo, LinkedIn looked like "a tragedy … about to play out."

In that context, hanging on for over seven years was a feat. But although the site grew to 50 million users in China, when judged against the size of the total China market, LinkedIn was never the smash hit its executives hoped it would be — one that might have convinced its leaders to countenance the moral compromises it continued to make.

LinkedIn gambled that it could keep everyone happy at the same time. It certainly tried to please Beijing: The company paused new user registrations after regulators gave it a talking to, and its latest spate of censorship in the West looks like part of its response. According to the Wall Street Journal, LinkedIn received 42 takedown requests from the Chinese government in 2020, of which it complied with 38.

Meanwhile, LinkedIn, or at least this author's feed, 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, and during the pandemic, a way to glimpse snippets of life in a country that became nearly impossible to visit. But alongside the cheery bonhomie there often flowed a disturbing current of Xinjiang denialism, often pushed by Western users of the platform in what smacked of pro-Beijing virtue signaling.

LinkedIn's exit underscores this unresolvable tension, one at the heart of its effort to be a platform for expression, not just job-seeking, in China. The platform's English announcement cites its commitment to "freedom of expression" and points to troubles facing a "significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China." By contrast, its equivalent Chinese announcement does not mention those terms at all. LinkedIn users in China are now hurriedly exchanging WeChat information in order to keep in touch, much as Chinese users of Clubhouse did when the writing was on the wall.

China is unlikely to miss LinkedIn much, partly because its hundreds of millions of job-seekers have many other options. China's job site market is more bifurcated, with some platforms focusing on nuts and bolts searches — Tencent-backed job board Boss Zhipin had its IPO on Nasdaq in June, raising nearly $1 billion — and others, like Maimai, focused exclusively on worker gossip. Maimai has broken news about workplace scandals including a death from overwork — although it has become a victim of its own success, both beset by lawsuits from tech employers angry at being exposed and also struggling to monetize its role as quasi-watchdog. Meanwhile, bona fide social organizing is happening off-platform, with users fed up with overwork using Tencent's documents feature to share schedule details as part of a grassroots "working time" online movement. LinkedIn never really figured into any of these conversations.

Ultimately, the demands of the Chinese state, the proliferation of competition and the fast-evolving needs of Chinese web users proved too much for even a power like Microsoft. With LinkedIn gone, the list of major U.S. social networks trying to succeed in China has shrunk to zero. It will likely be years before another one really tries.

Zeyi Yang and Shen Lu contributed research to this report.

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Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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