Professional networking site LinkedIn announced it will shut down its website in China because China’s hefty compliance requirements have created a “significantly more challenging operating environment.” Its parent company, Microsoft, said it would replace LinkedIn China with a job listings website without a social media element later this year.
LinkedIn’s retreat from China sends a warning to all Western companies that there is no middle ground between China’s authoritarian system and Western liberal democratic values. They must choose a side.
LinkedIn launched in China in 2014. It was the only Western social media site that operated openly in China, as Chinese authorities blocked other Western social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter. LinkedIn paid its admission price for the Chinese market by agreeing to adhere to the Chinese government’s rules, including censorship requirements.
Like all Western companies doing business in China, LinkedIn claimed that to comply with China’s law it had no choice but to censor content Chinese authorities object to. LinkedIn insisted the censorship was very light and in no way contradicted the company supporting free speech.
Still, LinkedIn’s censorship has caused great concern in the United States. In 2019, LinkedIn made headlines by blocking the profile of a U.S.-based Chinese dissident, Zhou Fengsuo. Zhou was one of the student leaders of the 1989 pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square.
After the Chinese government brutally cracked down on protestors, Zhou was forced into exile in the United States. He co-founded a nonprofit organization to aid human rights activists and organizations in China. On January 3, 2019, Zhou tweeted out a notice from LinkedIn, which stated that although the company “strongly supports freedom of expression,” Zhou’s profile and activities would not be viewable because of “specific content on your profile.”
Zhou demanded an answer in a tweet, “This is how censorship spread from Communist China to Silicon Valley in the age of globalization and digitalization. How does LinkedIn get the order from Beijing?” After Zhou’s tweet received wide media attention, LinkedIn reversed its action and unblocked Zhou’s account, claiming his profile had been blocked in error.
China’s ‘Cleanup’ of LinkedIn
As China’s leader Xi Xinping seeks to return China to the Maoist socialist model and intensify his suppression of dissenting voices, he demands more censorship from Chinese and foreign companies. Early this year, Chinese regulators visited LinkedIn’s headquarters in China and gave the company 30 days to “clean up” its content. The company disclosed that it had to stop new member sign-ups in China for weeks to “ensure we remain in compliance with local law.”
LinkedIn learned the hard way that capitulation to Beijing is not a one-time action but a process. Once you bend the knee, Beijing will soon demand a better attitude and posture. Surrender leads to more surrender because Beijing always wants more.
LinkedIn’s censorship on behalf of the Chinese government reached new heights in recent months. It used to only remove individual posts that Chinese censors did not like. But recently, LinkedIn blocked profiles and posts of foreign journalists, academics, researchers, and human rights activists from its China-based websites.
Well-known journalists affected included Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Vice News’ Melissa Chan, and U.K.-based author Greg Bruno. All of them have written about Beijing’s human rights violations in the past. All received similar messages from LinkedIn, which claims their profiles were blocked in LinkedIn China due to “prohibited content” in the summary section of these journalists’ profiles.
Besides these well-known journalists, LinkedIn also banned academics and researchers. One of them is Eyck Freymann, a Ph.D. student at Oxford University. According to the Wall Street Journal, Freymann’s profile was probably blocked in China because he included the words “Tiananmen Square massacre” in an entry describing his job as a research assistant for a book in 2015.
To add insult to injury, LinkedIn offered suggestions to those affected: modifying their content to remove the ban. Greg Bruno, author of a book on China’s soft power on Tibet, disclosed in an interview with Verdict, “LinkedIn suggests that my ban is not permanent, and that I am welcome to ‘update the Publications section’ of my profile ‘to minimize the impact’ of my offending content.”
Bruno rejected LinkedIn’s offer. He told Verdict: “While I am not surprised by the Chinese Communist Party’s discomfort with the topic of my book, I am dismayed that an American tech company is caving to the demands of a foreign government intent on controlling access to information.”
Chinese Intelligence Agents on LinkedIn
LinkedIn refused to explain whether its recent heightened censorship resulted from self-censorship by the company or was explicitly requested by the Chinese government. The company’s actions and its silence received widespread backlash at home and drew attention from U.S. lawmakers. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, wrote to LinkedIn, demanding the company say which Chinese Communist Party’s speech regulation it was enforcing on Americans and whether the company had handed over American users’ data to Beijing.
Senator Rick Scott, R-Florida, sent a letter addressed to Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella and LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky. He said the company’s censorship “raised the serious questions of Microsoft’s intentions and its commitment to standing up against Communist China’s horrific human rights abuses and repeated attacks against democracy.” He criticized the company’s action as a “gross appeasement and an act of submission to Communist China.”
Besides censorship, LinkedIn has been embroiled in another controversy. Chinese intelligence agents have used fake profiles on LinkedIn and disguised themselves as headhunters, consultants, and scholars to collect information and recruit potential spies. In 2017, Germany’s intelligence agency disclosed that Chinese agents targeted more than 10,000 German citizens, including senior diplomats and politicians.
A year later, William Evanina, the U.S. counterintelligence chief, warned LinkedIn about China’s “super aggressive” intelligence activities on the site. In 2020, a Singapore national was convicted in U.S. court as “an illegal agent for a foreign power.” He had set up a fake consulting company and used LinkedIn to recruit Americans to spy on behalf of China.
Forced to Close
Eventually, both the pressure from China and from home has proven too much for LinkedIn. The company finally realized that Beijing would continue to demand more censorship while abusing its intelligence-gathering on the company’s platform.
To please Beijing means to abandon the company’s business model as a platform for the open and free exchange of ideas and to face more backlash from the public and more scrutiny from lawmakers at home. Eventually, LinkedIn chose to fold its China operation because it couldn’t straddle two different political systems with opposing values and still be successful.
LinkedIn’s exit from China should serve as a warning for all Western businesses and organizations. For too long, Western companies and organizations, from Nike to the NBA, have operated by this “one company, two systems” model. They have acted as if they are the defenders of liberal democratic values in their home countries.
But they have instead overlooked the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses and insisted on abiding by the CCP’s speech code, all for the sake of chasing profit — they don’t want to be shut out of potentially lucrative Chinese markets. They have damaged their reputations while finding out Beijing’s appetite for control and censorship cannot be satisfied.
LinkedIn’s experience in China has shown that the “one company, two systems” model is a failure. All Western companies and organizations must realize that Beijing’s authoritarian model is incompatible with Western liberal democratic values.
Trying to find a middle ground will please no one. Western companies and organizations have to choose a side.
They should remind themselves that the liberal democratic values such as freedom of expression they enjoy at home have not only fattened their bottom line, they have given birth to superb products, including music, movies, products, and sports teams with universal popularity. If Western companies and organizations want to maintain their success and achieve more, they should choose freedom and democracy over kowtowing to Beijing.