Death of the ‘LinkedIn model’ fully decouples Chinese social media from the rest of the world

On Thursday, Microsoft’s LinkedIn professional networking platform announced that it is shutting down the Chinese version of its site, citing China’s increasingly strict censorship rules.

“[LinkedIn is] facing a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China,” Mohak Shroff, senior vice president at LinkedIn, wrote on the company’s blog. “Given this, we’ve made the decision to sunset the current localized version of LinkedIn [in China].”

Shroff said that the site will be shut down by the end of the year. It is not immediately clear what will happen to LinkedIn’s 54 million Chinese users. LinkedIn did not respond to Fortune’s questions.

But Shroff wrote that LinkedIn will soon launch InJobs, which will cater to the Chinese market. InJobs will act as a jobs board, connecting companies with potential hires, but it won’t have a social feed or allow users to share content.

LinkedIn’s decision to shutter its Chinese networking site ends the “LinkedIn model”—a strategy that LinkedIn pioneered to access the lucrative Chinese market via a joint venture with local partners that offered a censored version of its global product to users in China.

For years, the networking site held the enviable position of being the only major social media platform to connect users in China with users overseas. The LinkedIn model became a blueprint for how other tech giants could tap into China’s massive consumer base while appeasing Beijing’s censors. Other companies toyed with replicating LinkedIn’s strategy, but Beijing’s demands and political pushback foiled the plans. And as time passed, LinkedIn went from pioneer to sitting duck, stuck between Beijing and Washington as the two superpowers clashed over national security and free speech. Now LinkedIn is pulling out of the mainland, waiving a white flag that any prospect of connecting social media users on both sides of China’s firewall is all but dead.

The LinkedIn model

LinkedIn launched the localized version of its networking platform for the Chinese market in 2014.

At the time, LinkedIn said it had 4 million users in China, and the new localized site was the only way for LinkedIn to meet Chinese censorship rules that prohibited politically sensitive content that users sometimes shared on its global platform.

Executive chairman Jeff Weiner wrote in a blog post at the time that LinkedIn’s product in China would conform to censorship rules and that such a concession was necessary to ensure Chinese users could connect to a global audience.

“LinkedIn’s absence in China would deny Chinese professionals a means to connect with others on our global platform, thereby limiting the ability of individual Chinese citizens to pursue and realize the economic opportunities, dreams and rights most important to them,” Weiner wrote.

For the most part, users of LinkedIn’s Chinese site experience the platform just as users outside of China do; they can build a professional profile, apply for jobs, share work updates or news stories, and connect with LinkedIn users from all around the world. The main difference is that Chinese users will not see posts or users that LinkedIn blocks due to China’s censorship rules.

LinkedIn’s China platform appeared to be a success, growing into LinkedIn’s third-largest market behind the U.S. and India as of this year, according to LinkedIn’s website. It is unclear how much of LinkedIn’s $10.3 billion in revenue came from China in 2020. Microsoft president Brad Smith said in January that all China revenue accounted for less than 2% of Microsoft’s earnings, which totaled $143 billion last year.

LinkedIn’s approach to the mainland market served as a model for other tech giants to enter the Chinese market after previous bans.

In 2016, the New York Times reported that Facebook spent years working on a censored version of its platform for China after Beijing banned its global platform in 2009. But by 2019, Mark Zuckerberg declared his efforts to enter China officially over.

“I wanted our services in China because I believe in connecting the whole world and I thought we might help create a more open society,” Zuckerberg said in a speech at Georgetown University in 2019. “But we could never come to agreement on what it would take for us to operate there, and they never let us in.”

After China banned Google in 2010, Google launched a project called Dragonfly in 2017 that would create a censored version of its search engine for China. In 2019, Google announced that it had shuttered the Dragonfly project amid concerns—inside the company and externally—that it was bowing to censorship rules and inviting Chinese authorities to gather data about its users in China. Over 1,000 Google employees signed a letter protesting Dragonfly, arguing that the project would establish a “dangerous precedent” in helping powerful governments like China oppress vulnerable populations.

The failure of Google and Facebook to create a censored versions of their platforms signaled that the LinkedIn model might be limited to relatively apolitical spaces like professional networking.

“[LinkedIn’s exit from China] is proof that any model that includes media and user-generated content cannot survive,” says Dev Lewis, research fellow at internet think tank Digital Asia Hub. “For the long term, [LinkedIn’s China exit] may mean that there is really no future for foreign-owned media in China.”

A social media decoupling

In recent months, LinkedIn has faced increasing scrutiny about its Chinese website in both China and the U.S., where it is headquartered.

In March, LinkedIn announced that it would stop accepting new users in China to comply with new censorship rules, saying it needed to time to ensure that it was adhering to government regulations. Microsoft also announced that its servers in China were the target of a Chinese state-sponsored attack.

In following months, LinkedIn users outside of China began to report that LinkedIn was asking them to drop politically sensitive material from their profiles or face bans in China. In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that LinkedIn censored the profiles of least 10 academics and journalists for sensitive content on their profiles. In September, prominent journalists like Axios’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Deutsche Welle TV’s Melissa Chan, and independent journalist Greg Bruno also reported that their profiles had been censored in China. Bruno said that LinkedIn asked him to remove his book Blessings From Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet from the publication section of his profile to appease Chinese censors. If he did not comply, LinkedIn said that his entire profile, including items he shared and his comments on posts, would not be viewable in China.

“The censorship of these journalists raises serious questions about Microsoft’s intentions and its commitment to standing up against Communist China’s horrific human rights abuses and repeated attacks against democracy,” Sen. Rick Scott (R–Fla.) wrote in a letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella about the bans.

But Lewis says the pressure from the U.S. was likely less important to LinkedIn than China’s constricting regulatory environment.

In May, the Cyberspace Administration of China publicly accused LinkedIn and over 100 other apps of illegally collecting and using the personal data of its users. CAC later published guidelines to crack down on the spread of what it deems “misinformation,” including not allowing users to post misleading information about China’s financial markets and economic policies. More recently, China’s government announced new rules to further restrict private companies from publishing and spreading news.

“I doubt [LinkedIn’s exit] is related to any backlash or outcry from academia or media in the U.S. Microsoft has been operating in China for a long time now,” Lewis says. “China has introduced policies toward having more control over social media and more control of content that’s published…[LinkedIn’s exit] is most probably linked to these new policies.”

Kendra Schaefer, a partner at business advisory firm Trivium China, also noted on Twitter that LinkedIn’s decision to leave may have been related to a new law that would have required LinkedIn to overhaul its algorithms to ensure that LinkedIn would “uphold core socialist values” in showing content to users in China.

Ultimately, LinkedIn’s exit indicates a nearly complete decoupling of China’s social media and the outside world.

“It’s sad to see the day that this platform was shut down because LinkedIn was the last platform that really connected mainland users and global users together,” says Lewis.

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