China, LinkedIn Would Like to Add You to Its Network

LinkedIn is now aiming its bow for the rocky shoals that have claimed Facebook, Twitter, Google, and even eBay: the Chinese market. On February 24, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner announced the launch of LinkedIn’s Chinese-language site, still in beta, meaning it is a test edition subject to further improvement. LinkedIn has been active (and unblocked) in China for ten years, but the move reflects an intention to apply for a business license there. LinkedIn, which raised $1 billion in a September 2013 stock sale partly to fund international expansion, is surely tantalized at the prospect of bringing in the additional 140 million users Weiner estimates China could provide on top of what it says are 277 million current users. But even if it gets the Chinese government license it needs—and the smart money says the company would not have made its announcement without liking its chances—LinkedIn looks to be in for some choppy sailing.

At first glance, the platform looks well positioned to become the only major U.S. social network to succeed in China. Twitter, for example, has been blocked in China ever since July 2009 riots in the Western Chinese region of Xinjiang, when news of police violence there first leaked via tweet. Facebook started having problems earlier, in July 2008, after launching a Chinese-language version. (The Chinese government has never admitted to blocking either of them.) By contrast, the California-based LinkedIn bills itself as the “world’s largest professional network,” and doesn’t appear to aspire to much more than fulfilling that core competency. Its sharp focus surely lends some comfort to Chinese authorities wary of speech-and-information-freedom advocates like Twitter. LinkedIn’s emphasis on helping members make professional connections—all communicated through a barrage of red status alerts and email invitations to congratulate a connection on tweaks to their profile—seems a perfect fit for what many Chinese would agree is a status-obsessed society, some of whose members suffer from Internet addiction.

That’s why it’s surprising to see that, thus far, LinkedIn’s China soft-launch does not appear to have been a hit on China’s hyperactive blogosphere. Among those who have chosen to comment on the latest entrant, many have focused on the name, Ling Ying, which roughly means “pick out the elites.” The moniker, it happens, is also an inauspicious (and probably accidental) near-homonym with another word, also Romanized “ling ying,” which means “ghost child.” (One Chinese legend holds that unborn children become spirits.) Another headache: Some Chinese dialects don’t distinguish between the “n” and “l” sounds, meaning certain users may not know whether LinkedIn’s new Chinese domain is indeed, or instead (The latter is currently unclaimed; LinkedIn may wish to make the owner an offer.) On Sina Weibo, a Twitter-esque platform in China, one user complained, “One look at the name and you know LinkedIn’s China entrance will fail.” Another, also critiquing the new label, wrote, “It seems a tragedy is about to play out.” Yet another sneered that LinkedIn is “already ninety percent” of the way to losing the China market because of its name.

That’s surely too harsh. LinkedIn’s major obstacles are not of the linguistic sort, but rather the same that bedevil domestic networks. Popular Chinese tech blog Huxiu warned in a February 25 article that LinkedIn, which had clearly “thoroughly investigated” the Chinese market before entering, nonetheless “certainly should not relax” in the face of what Huxiu calls “the curse” of foreign Internet firms who eagerly seek to enter China, only to discover keen competitors waiting on the other side of the Pacific. The site’s analysis holds that LinkedIn is a “composite” of a social network and a job-seeking site, and perhaps better conceived as a competitor to Chinese native site Tianji, which claims 14 million users and likewise aims at an elite Chinese crowd, as opposed to larger Chinese jobs platforms like Zhaopin or 51job, which function more as massive classifieds sections. But the article noted that social networks suffer from some well-known obstacles, including the lack of what it calls “stickiness” among users—that is, they are quick to migrate elsewhere—and difficulty in monetizing among richer Chinese, who are often resistant to paying for online services.

Then, of course, there’s the omnipresent threat of censorship. In a blog post, Weiner avers his company will deal with inevitable official meddling by implementing government restrictions “only when and to the extent required” and “undertake extensive measures to protect the rights and data of our members” while being transparent about its China dealings. Such intentions are laudable, but hard to put into practice. Over the past several years, China’s NASDAQ-listed Sina Corp., which runs the massive Weibo platform, soon to have its own spin-off IPO, has not exactly fallen over itself to obey Chinese Communist Party commands. When in March 2012 authorities required that Sina implement real-name registration, intended to encourage self-censorship among its members, the company executed an end-run by simply asking for users’ cell phone numbers, which were linked to real names in theory but not in practice. But the party still ultimately got its wish, with political speech on Weibo seriously declining in the wake of—and certainly partly as a result of—a September 2013 crackdown that included new anti-rumor laws and the arrest or detention of hundreds of microbloggers.

Of course, LinkedIn enjoys a heavy hand in setting the tone for its self-selected user community, from the site’s branding and marketing down to its available set of user functions. But recent history is replete with examples of Chinese netizens repurposing major Chinese-language web platforms for what some would call more seditious ends. Douban, which has more than 50 million users, launched in March 2005 as a book and movie review site, but now hosts conversations about ethnic identity, home prices, and women’s rights. Zhihu, a Q-and-A site which launched January 2011 and claims around 40 million users, sometimes hosts conversations about freedom or democracy, even as it admits to deleting sensitive content on an ongoing basis. In fact, LinkedIn itself has already seen some of that repurposing. Kai-Fu Lee, who used to head Google’s China operations, has used LinkedIn’s “Influencers” feature (currently unavailable on the Chinese version) to discuss censorship, Chinese reactions to the NSA’s PRISM wire-tapping program, and Weibo’s (heretofore unrealized) power to change China.

In short, LinkedIn surely hopes to protect the privacy and freedom of its users (a spokesman declined to comment). But it’s also probably hoping that Chinese users stick to using the platform for the purpose for which it was intended—finding jobs. China’s government certainly feels the same way. Its unspoken bargain with its citizens since economic liberalization in 1979 has been that a largely unbridled pursuit of wealth subsidizes a continuing lack of political freedom. But the twain are not always easy to separate. A debate has emerged among influential Chinese entrepreneurs about whether to use their clout to affect political change. Some have given strident support, only to discover that their money did not insulate them from abusive treatment by authorities who felt the entrepreneur had crossed the invisible red line: Wealthy businessman Wang Gongquan was arrested in September 2013 for helping organize a Chinese protest movement, and released only last month after what Wang’s lawyer has claimed were ninety-two rounds of interrogation. LinkedIn, whatever its intentions and its plans, could end up getting caught in the middle.