For American tech companies, China is tricky. It’s highly desirable -- a juicy market, with almost twice as many internet users as the U.S. has people -- but prickly, with strict censorship laws that make it difficult for companies that aggressively promote the value of a free and open internet to operate within its borders.
Powerhouses Google, Facebook and Twitter have either stayed out or pulled out of China, unable to walk the all-but-impossible line of pleasing the Chinese government without appearing hypocritical.
Now, LinkedIn attempts to walk that tightrope, a feat it may just pull off: Today, the company launched a beta version of a new simplified Chinese language site through which it hopes to reach 140 million Chinese professionals (there are already four million members in China on the English version of its site).
To do so, of course, LinkedIn had to comply with China’s government mandated censorship laws. But whereas a core function of social networks like Google, Facebook and Twitter, in particular, is the ability to engage in political debates, criticize government activities and organize dissenting voices into offline action, LinkedIn is first and foremost a site for professional networking -- in general, it’s not a hotbed of censorable material.
In order to wade off criticism for complying with China’s censorship laws, the Mountain View, Calif-based company is wisely playing up its role as a platform that leads to valuable job opportunities.
“As a condition for operating in the country, the government of China imposes censorship requirements on Internet platforms,” CEO Jeff Weiner wrote in a blog post announcing the news. “LinkedIn strongly supports freedom of expression and fundamentally disagrees with government censorship. At the same time, we also believe that LinkedIn’s absence in China would deny Chinese professionals a means to connect with others on our global platform, thereby limiting the ability of individual Chinese citizens to pursue and realize the economic opportunities, dreams and rights most important to them.”
Derek Shen, LinkedIn’s president of China, went a step further. In a blog post, he shared stories of Chinese citizens who achieved career success through the connections the made on the site. “Our mission is to connect the world’s professionals and create greater economic opportunity – and this is a significant step towards achieving that goal,” he wrote.
LinkedIn may just keep its balance, managing to maintain its respectability while capitalizing on the huge economic opportunity expanding into China entails.