Why Is LinkedIn Still Trading Liberties For Connections?

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I was recently informed by LinkedIn that, “due to the presence of prohibited content” within one of my publications, my profile, and public activity, would no longer be, “made viewable in China.” I assume this measure was in retaliation to one of my recent articles, published here at AND Magazine: 

In February 2014, when the online networking service first announced plans to launch a beta site in China, Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO, enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of connecting China’s growing professional population with the rest of the world and vice versa. However, these lofty ambitions came at a price. 

LinkedIn, for all of its benevolent intentions, struck a deal with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP):  

“While we strongly support freedom of expression, we recognized when we launched that we would need to adhere to the requirements of the Chinese government in order to operate in China.” 

Originally, Weiner assured users that, “Government restrictions on content will be implemented only when and to the extent required” and that the company would constantly be “transparent” in how it conducted business in China, and safeguard member’s data. 

Shortly thereafter, LinkedIn was put in the hot seat for censoring posts related to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, a ‘no-go’ topic in Chinese society. 

But why this post and why now – considering that this is not the first time I’ve expressed doubts about the regime? 

The same day my account was banned in China, the New York Times reported that the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Chinese government’s main internet policing body, reprimanded company officials over their supposed “lax censorship” performance. In addition to undergoing a self-evaluation, LinkedIn’s China site was restricted from new member signups for 30 days. 

Lance Crayon, a former senior editor at the Global Time and the individual I originally interviewed for the piece in question, believes that China’s decision to punish Microsoft’s LinkedIn may be connected to an earlier controversy. 

On March 2, Microsoft reported that their on-premises Exchange servers were hacked. The company alleged that the Chinese state-sponsored group Hafnium was behind the breach. Following Microsoft’s announcement about the hack, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry denied the government involvement, saying that, “connecting cyberattacks directly to the government is a highly sensitive political issue.” A week later, LinkedIn “voluntarily” froze new sign-ups in China. Company executives officially stated that the two events were not linked.

What happens now?

Moving forward, Crayon remarked, company officials will exclusively report to Chinese government officials, daring not to draw the ire of the Communist Party’s Great Firewall. LinkedIn, like so many other Western companies operating in the People’s Republic of China, is caught in a recurring cycle of self-permitted exploitation. 

In 2014, LinkedIn had the opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength. When the company first launched its Simplified Chinese site, there were no other competitors in sight. LinkedIn had a monopoly over the online networking industry. 

So then why did company executives not negotiate from a position of strength? Why did LinkedIn continue to cater to China’s arbitrary censorship laws?

Jeff Weiner’s remarks a little less than a decade ago speak for themselves. LinkedIn could not pass up the opportunity to potentially add an additional 140 million new members to their members base.  

Today, out of the company’s 740 million members, 52 million are located in Mainland China. Overall, 39% of its users subscribe to premium content, which is broken down into four-tier subscription plans ranging from $29.99/month for Premium Career to 119.95/month for a Recruiter Lite account. It suffices to say that LinkedIn, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2016 for $26.2 billion, is a cash cow. In 2020, the company’s third-quarter revenue increased by 21% year-over-year.

A done deal? 

LinkedIn’s unwillingness to recognize its preeminence before is costing them dearly now. China’s growing domestic industries, further perpetuated by Chairman Xi Jinping’s Made in China 2025 initiative and forced technology transfers, have given rise to notable competitors, like Maimai

Appeasing the Chinese communists is futile. The Chinese government is just waiting for the right moment to raise the Great Firewall on the social media networking site. As recent history has shown, doing business in China comes at a price. No matter how much Chinese state-actors and businesses bully foreign firms, the Chinese Communist Party will always retort with, “we are doing you a favor,” giving said companies access to China’s billion-plus person marketplace. Microsoft’s LinkedIn’s days in Xi’s China are numbered – get out now. 

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