LinkedIn opens Chinese-language site, agrees to rules on censorship

LinkedIn has a major growth opportunity on its hands, but will need to adhere to China's rules on censorship

The front page of LinkedIn's new Chinese language site.

The front page of LinkedIn's new Chinese language site.

After exploring the market for years, LinkedIn is formally entering China with a new beta site that will adhere to the nation's strict rules on online censorship.

The new Chinese language site, called Lingying, launched on Monday and hopes to tap over 140 million professionals living in the country, LinkedIn said in a company blog post.

The professional social networking site has been eyeing the Chinese market, where it already has four million members. But until Monday LinkedIn had largely been an English-language site to users in the country.

By launching the site, the company has also agreed to follow China's controversial regulations on censorship. Those rules generally require local sites to filter out politically sensitive content, either by deleting user posts, curtailing certain searches or shutting down user accounts.

On Monday, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner wrote in a blog post that the company supports free speech and disagrees with government censorship. But after discussing the matter with experts, including business leaders and global human rights groups, LinkedIn decided more could be in gained in helping Chinese users connect to new economic opportunities.

"Extending our service in China raises difficult questions, but it is clear to us that the decision to proceed is the right one," Weiner wrote.

The Chinese site plans to only censor content when required, and LinkedIn said it will be transparent about its practices in China. "Extensive measures" will also be taken to protect company users' data, Weiner added.

It's unclear if abiding to China's online censorship will affect LinkedIn's English-language website. In February 2011, LinkedIn was briefly blocked in China at a time when local authorities were clamping down on mentions of a pro-democratic movement called the "Jasmine Revolution."

LinkedIn is just the latest U.S. Internet company to try to enter China, a market foreign firms have often struggled to compete in. Google and Yahoo once had major ambitions to expand in the country, but have clashed with China's demands on content control.

In the case of Yahoo, the company found itself in controversy over the jailing of a Chinese journalist. In 2004, the journalist was arrested after Yahoo provided Chinese authorities with his email records that detailed the government's attempts to restrict local media.

In addition, LinkedIn is coming to the market late when others such as rival Viadeo Group have been active in the country. In 2007, Viadeo acquired the Chinese professional social networking site Tianji.com. Early last year, the site had over 14 million users.

But the bigger obstacle for LinkedIn comes from China's domestic Internet firms, according to Ben Cavender, an analyst with China Market Research Group. Already, many Chinese Internet users are relying on local social networking platforms, such as Sina Weibo and WeChat, to not only communicate with friends and read news, but also find jobs. Both Sina Weibo and WeChat each have over 300 million registered users. At the same time, many of LinkedIn's prospective users in China -- those who speak English and are looking for international opportunities -- are already on the site, Cavender said.

To grow, the company will have to provide a strong contact base as well as job opportunities for Chinese-language users. "I think it's possible that they could do quite well here," Cavender said. "They are well established already in bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing but it will take time to build the user base in other markets in China. The Chinese language version of the site should allow them to do this."

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