Censorship compliance and the PR crisis: why LinkedIn left China

While LinkedIn might have seemed like an easy market-entry tool for some, it was never influential enough to be financially worthwhile both for advertisers and Microsoft, writes We Are Social’s Pete Lin.

LinkedIn recently announced it will be shutting down its mainland China version of the platform. This wasn’t another case of the Great Firewall switching off the lights for a global social media platform. This was a voluntary decision by LinkedIn. The devil, of course, is in the details.

LinkedIn was one of the few global social media platforms to maintain a presence in China after the notorious 2009 shutdown of Twitter and Facebook. In 2014, it launched a simplified Chinese language version of the site to accommodate the growing Chinese user base, which had already grown to 4 million that year.

So what did LinkedIn do to stay in the good graces of the Great Firewall? It played ball with China’s internet regulatory authorities and agreed to censor content as required by the government – something Twitter, Facebook, Google and many more global platforms were not willing to do.

Fast forward to March 2021 and LinkedIn was no longer in China’s internet regulators’ good graces and had to stop new member sign-ups to review their compliance with local law. Then in May, its owner Microsoft was called out by regulators (along with 105 local Chinese companies) for “improper data collection” on both LinkedIn and Bing.

LinkedIn then began ramping up censorship. It censored foreign academics, researchers and journalists on the Chinese version of the platform throughout the summer. Mentions of sensitive keywords were all screened out.

The censorship continued through September, which included blocking the local profiles of journalist Melissa Chan and writer Greg Bruno. LinkedIn sent them both an email stating that their profiles included “prohibited content“ and would no longer be viewable in China.

This provoked the ire of the US Congress, which questioned LinkedIn in early October and criticized Microsoft for not taking a stronger stance against China.

This put Microsoft in a pickle. It needed to stay on top of the ever-growing censorship demands in China to maintain a LinkedIn presence, but in doing so faced a PR crisis and looming regulatory blowback at home.

From a financial perspective, Microsoft had to decide to let go of LinkedIn China. With only 800,000 monthly active users, it is dwarfed by indigenous professional networks such as Maimai, which claimed 7 million in a recent report.

Brands from around the world should not be too alarmed by this development, however. Those who understand the China market will know that LinkedIn had always been a marginal platform at best, and that its expat-centric audience was not reliant on its social networking features.

With LinkedIn gone, marketers can choose other, more robust methods of reaching the Chinese professional audience. There are KOL’s and digital publishers for almost every industry on WeChat and Weibo. Recruitment for almost all positions has been dominated by Boss Zhipin (listed on the Nasdaq under BZ). While LinkedIn might have seemed like an easy market-entry tool for some, it was never influential enough to be financially worthwhile both for its advertisers and Microsoft.

The way forward for all brands operating in China is this: find a reliable partner with a strong on-the-ground presence, use its local market insights to develop a highly targeted program, and leverage the indigenous Chinese platforms for what they are good at, which is communicating with the Chinese audience.

Pete Lin is the regional managing director for North Asia at We Are Social