As of 10pm Shanghai time, reports are pouring in that LinkedIn too has now succumbed to the Great Firewall. I can’t access it from Shanghai without using circumvention technology like a virtual private network. Sometimes such blockages are temporary, but I’m guessing this one has permanent implications.
LinkedIn allows users to connect their accounts with Twitter, so that they can both tweet from LinkedIn and share their tweets on LinkedIn. Until now, LinkedIn was the easiest way to access Twitter in China.
And being the easiest way to tweet is a lousy government relations strategy in China. It appears that crackdown on the Chinese internet is accelerating again since calls started circulating online for ‘weekly follow-up‘ to the minuscule “Jasmine Revolution” gatherings in Beijing and Shanghai last Sunday. The Wall Street Journal reports:
China’s domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang, added his voice to calls for tighter Internet controls as censors ratcheted up temporary online restrictions, a day after a failed attempt to use social-networking sites to start a “Jasmine Revolution” in China.
And prescient words from Chinese internet investor, Bill Bishop: “No foreign SNS [social-networking site] is safe.” The last big shutdown in social was during the Xinjiang riots of July 2009, when Twitter and Facebook were both blocked.
Even the U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, has managed to get his name censored in searches, after his “purely coincidental” appearance at the tiny protest in Beijing. If he runs for President of the United States in 2012, you can be sure he’ll raise that argument every time another candidate accuses him of being a panda-hugger.
China Was Never “LinkedIn” Anyway
But it’s not like LinkedIn ever seemed to care much about China. Maybe they judged (perhaps correctly) that they didn’t have much chance here anyway.
Foreign sites have a dismal track record in China and social sites doubly so. Beyond the normal favoritism and protectionism concerns, user-generated content is highly sensitive. Chinese social sites like RenRen (China’s Facebook) and Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter) face the headache of hiring hundreds — if not thousands — of employees whose full-time job is to censor content (especially photos and videos).
Even if executives of a foreign site decide to play by China’s censorship rules, they face a far greater headache than a Chinese site. Would you start a separate network just for Chinese users, walled off from all other users? What about Chinese who start accounts abroad? Should LinkedIn have blocked all accounts “created in China” from linking to Twitter? How do you deal with a massive international backlash?
And finally, if relations do sour, would you have the government guanxi (connections) to prevent a shutdown? So most foreign sites decide not to come to China. To my knowledge, very few have even tried when large-scale censorship of user-generated content was necessary (MySpace.cn, R.I.P, was one).
So LinkedIn never bothered to translate its site into Chinese (the six languages it officially supports are English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese). And this despite never having a popular competitor in China…
A Happy Day for Chinese Clones
Now that the 95%+ of mainland Chinese businesspeople without virtual private networks are unable to access LinkedIn, more Chinese users will seek alternatives.
China has had LinkedIn clones for some time now, but unlike many other models copycatted to China, business social networks have not caught on yet. Early contenders included Tianji and Wealink, neither of which has much momentum today in my anecdotal observation.
One promising recent entrant is Ushi.cn, a dual English-Chinese network, which has targeted a crowd of tech elite and investors, just as LinkedIn did to start. And to be fair, Ushi.cn does have a fair number of localized features to accommodate its Chinese and China-focused expat user base.
It’s too early to tell if Ushi.cn will make it big — most LinkedIn users had dormant accounts for the first 1.5 years until the site reached critical mass — but I think it’s the best contender.
Oak Pacific Interactive, an umbrella group that owns RenRen, China’s copy of Facebook, is also beta testing a new business social network: JingWei (经纬). Expect the market to heat up now that LinkedIn is blocked.
You Haven’t Made it Until…
Of course, LinkedIn is in good company, especially in social: you haven’t made it until you’re either copied or blocked in China. Or preferably both.
So congratulations to LinkedIn. Now that that’s out of the way? IPO.
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