In 2019, when LinkedIn began asking for Chinese users' phone numbers, it was clear that the professional social network would have to follow a different set of rules in the country. But it realized simply setting up the real-name verification regime required by Chinese authorities wasn't enough; it faced a mounting task of balancing censorship demand and upholding its "Western value" that extols freedom of expression.
The solution was to retreat. This past October, Microsoft announced it would bring an end to LinkedIn's Chinese version -- which still functioned largely the same as the "global" one barring, extra requirements like cell number verification. On December 13, Microsoft introduced a LinkedIn alternative called InCareer on China's App Store and third-party Android stores. Focusing on jobs, the new app bears the facade of LinkedIn but lacks its social feed and content posting option, which would otherwise require content monitoring efforts by Microsoft's team in China. InCareer still keeps the messaging feature.
In a blog post, LinkedIn explained its move:
While we’ve found success in helping Chinese members find jobs and economic opportunity, we have not found that same level of success in the more social aspects of sharing and staying informed. We’re also facing a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.
Microsoft is not the only foreign tech giant that has pulled its service from China. In recent years, China has introduced a slew of new cyber regulations to rein in everything from how much data internet firms can collect to how they move data across borders. Yahoo, TechCrunch's parent company, recently exited China citing an "increasingly challenging business and legal environment."
China-based users with the LinkedIn app are now prompted to download InCareer, though they can still access the full version of the social network via a web browser and VPN. But these extra fences are set to drive users away from a platform that already had limited reach in the country.
LinkedIn was popular mostly among expats and Chinese users working at multinationals or cross-border businesses, while its local competitor Maimai has more prominence. In April, Maimai accounted for 91% of the time Chinese users spent on professional social networking apps, according to market research firm iResearch.
Microsoft's other surviving service in China, Bing, also ran into a hitch recently. The search engine became inaccessible in China on December 18, according to user reports and Greatfire.org, though it appeared to have come back online as of December 20. TechCrunch has reached out to Microsoft regarding the situation.
The incident also coincided with Bing's suspension of its search autofill feature in China for 30 days "under PRC laws," according to a notice posted by the search engine provider. It's unclear what laws the site was referring to.
Bing was briefly down in China in 2019 when its indigenous rival Baidu's reputation took a hit. At the time, speculation was rife that Baidu users migrating to Bing in droves might have crashed the American site.
It's not uncommon to see foreign tech companies playing catch-up with Chinese laws after being left alone for years. Apple initiated a wave of crackdown on unlicensed mobile games from its Chinese App Store years after the relevant regulation took effect. The Bing suspension might well be a similar case where the search engine, which had long been under the radar in China because few people used it, was finally ordered to close the loophole -- autofill suggestions that could get on the censors' nerves.