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Here’s the Biggest Loser From LinkedIn’s China Departure

Here’s the Biggest Loser From LinkedIn’s China Departure

Saturday, 16 October, 2021 - 04:45

The demise of LinkedIn’s operations in China wasn’t inevitable. Having watched names like Google, Facebook and Twitter retreat from the country, the US social-media provider found a way in 2014 to survive by moderating content in such a way that its presence was palatable to Beijing while still remaining relevant to users.

That compromise came to an end over the past 12 months, leading parent Microsoft Corp. to pull the plug this week, citing a “significantly more challenging operating environment.” In March, LinkedIn said it was pausing new signups in China while working to fall in line with tighter censorship laws. In May, a UK-based academic said his account had been frozen and posts that criticized Beijing were hidden. Then last month, Axios journalist Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian said she’d been told by LinkedIn directly that her profile had been blocked in China due to her content.

Microsoft won’t suffer much, but China’s emerging professional class, spanning fields from technology to finance, will be a huge loser from the disappearance of one of their last online connections to the outside world. A scaled-down job posting site will replace it, but the service as we know it is gone.

Purchasing LinkedIn for $26 billion in 2016 was a good fit for Microsoft, which was skewing away from consumer businesses into the professional domain. Two years later, it bought code-sharing site Github for $7.5 billion. While the US software giant still runs the Bing search engine, sells Xbox consoles, and ships the Windows operating system on millions of computers each year, the company now gets more revenue from cloud services than any other product.

That focus on corporate customers made the LinkedIn purchase, replete with LinkedIn China, a tolerable if uncomfortable prospect. Unlike Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc. and Twitter Inc., Microsoft’s business isn’t built around driving large volumes of consumer-generated content and engagement in order to then sell targeted advertising. Users, even those outside China, could accept censorship of a business platform in exchange for the chance to build connections and swap ideas with fellow professionals.

One can debate the merits of free speech allowing an unfettered exchange of views versus censorship designed to maintain harmony and social order, yet it’s hard to make the case that consumers are fundamentally disadvantaged by not being able to access Facebook or Twitter.

LinkedIn is different. On the surface, it’s a place to show off your resume and skills to prospective employers, and for recruiters to scout for new talent. More deeply, though, it’s where seasoned professionals share career advice and inside tips, while up-and-comers build connections and gather ideas. It has its dark side, too, with harassment and scams cropping up. Chinese intelligence has used it to recruit spies.

China’s burgeoning white-collar workforce does have alternatives, and LinkedIn’s local base of just 50 million accounts shows that it wasn’t a runaway success there, anyway. But those who do use it are the outward-looking, global-minded professionals that China needs most at a time when Beijing is laser-focused on becoming a world leader in numerous domains.

In the end, China decided that being able to learn from Virgin Group founder Richard Branson or AI pioneer Rana el Kaliouby just wasn’t worth the risk of stumbling across a wayward post about Tiananmen Square. Its people, and the nation as a whole, may be a lot poorer for the loss of LinkedIn.


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