Is LinkedIn or Beijing to Blame for the Brand’s Pivot in China?

    LinkedIn recently posted that it was pursuing an alternative path in China, but do American social platforms truly have a harder time in the country?
    LinkedIn recently posted that it was pursuing an alternative path in China, but do American social platforms truly have a harder time in the country? Photo: Shutterstock
    Adina-Laura AchimAuthor
      Published   in Technology

    Key Takeaways:#

    LinkedIn China’s demise should not solely get pinned to Beijing’s media censorship.

    Social platforms WeChat and Maimai simply have superior features and more engaging content.

    Those who decry Chinese censorship practices shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the suppression of speech in the US.

    A recent blog post — signed by Mohak Shroff, senior vice president and head of engineering at LinkedIn — announced that LinkedIn was pursuing an alternative path in China. According to Shroff, LinkedIn’s latest direction will focus “on helping China-based professionals find jobs in China, and Chinese companies find quality candidates,” via InJobs, a new and independent job-search app the company has designed for the Chinese market. However, LinkedIn will shut down its social feed, eliminating content sharing in the country.

    Shroff’s post highlights how LinkedIn “found success in helping Chinese members find jobs and economic opportunity” but didn’t accomplish the same progress “in the more social aspects of sharing and staying informed.” Additionally, the company cited “a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.”

    While LinkedIn’s desire to scale back its Chinese operations took aback some Western commentators, the move is hardly surprising if we consider how the career networking platform suspended new user registrations in March. Recent scandals that involved the blocking of “prohibited information” and subsequent government pressure helped take down the company.

    But LinkedIn’s demise should not get pinned merely to Beijing’s media censorship or China’s tight grip on social media. In fact, Rui Ma, founder of Tech Buzz China, mentions how “years of low-value growth” in China and heightened scrutiny in the United States helped bring down the social media titan.

    “The fundamental problem is that LinkedIn never managed to take hold in China despite Derek Shen’s (LinkedIn China’s first president) drive to localize the product and learn from the stumbles of his peers,” says Ma. “While its numbers grew steadily — from 4 million when he took over to about 50 million now — it isn’t widely used in China, except by those with an overseas link.”

    From Ma’s perspective, LinkedIn's China audience primarily included overseas employees, repatriates, and MNEs workers. Moreover, Chinese white-collar workers don’t use the platform to “maintain their network or flaunt their achievements” because WeChat and Maimai have superior features and more engaging content.

    It is too easy to blame Beijing for everything and downplay how, even in the US, politicians want to tighten the reins on social media and censor political content.

    “China’s censorship regulations undermine the way free and open internet companies like to operate and grow their businesses,” says eMarketer. AP News shares a similar view, concluding that “foreign social networking platforms in China have long faced challenges in balancing users’ ability to post what they want with government rules requiring censorship of content deemed to be unacceptable for political or other reasons.”

    Western media rightfully highlights how censoring free speech is harmful to business health and negatively affects companies and society. However, some of China’s most powerful accusers have encouraged political censorship in the US, and some famous thinkers even request Chinese-style social media censorship. Moreover, state lawmakers and renowned politicians have called for social media “censorship” lawsuits and the removal of content that the government dislikes. Seemingly, the content that American lawmakers see as “problematic” is boundless, touching upon “fake news,” posts by COVID-19 vaccine deniers, and political ads.

    As Douglas Blair, an administrative assistant for communications at The Heritage Foundation and a contributor for The Daily Signal, rightfully points out, in America, “it’s not illegal to question vaccines, nor is it illegal to criticize your political opposition.” And “yet, if some congressional Democrats were to have their way, tech giants would be forced to remove such content or face government-enforced consequences.”

    In short, those that decry China’s censorship practices shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the suppression of words and ideas in the US.

    As for LinkedIn devotees who hail the social media platform as a hero that refused to comply with China’s laws, they seem to underplay the company’s errors and miscalculations in the Middle Kingdom. Despite global outcry, Western social media platforms do not have a harder time in China than in the US. The challenges, biases, and even the odds of success are roughly similar. But some refuse to acknowledge that because blaming China for everything distracts from the next recession and the US government’s failures.

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