Tech giant Microsoft has withdrawn its LinkedIn professional social media service from mainland China, citing the difficulties of compliance in the Middle Kingdom.
The move marks the withdrawal of the last major western social media operation in China, where the Communist government is simultaneously pushing back against tech firms, private capital and western influence.
The Chinese government is in the process of pushing tech firms out of the news business, even in seemingly uncontroversial areas as sports.
“We’re also facing a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China,” LinkedIn explained on its corporate blog. “Given this, we’ve made the decision to sunset the current localized version of LinkedIn later this year.”
The company intends to replace the service with a China-only app that focuses on job search and will “not include a social feed or the ability to share posts or articles.”
LinkedIn was launched in China in 2014, several years after other western tech firms had started to withdraw from the country. It recently had 54 million users.
But LinkedIn had increasingly been called out for censoring posts and accounts that might offend Beijing. In March, it halted new member signups after being given a 30-day deadline by China to increase censorship. “We’re a global platform with an obligation to respect the local laws that apply to us,” it explained in August when criticized for censoring the blogs of journalists and activists.
China operates some of the most intrusive censorship laws, the world’s strictest law on data privacy, and requires data on Chinese operations and citizens to be held on servers in China. Telecoms firm Huawei has proposed that the next generation of the the global internet include ‘intrinsic security,’ which would give authorities the world over the ability to identify individual users and block their access to the web, or an export model of China’s own ‘internet sovereignty’ system.
On Friday last week, China’s crackdown on news and information services operated from outside state control was given new teeth. China’s national planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission issued draft regulations that would further restrict the involvement of “nonpublic capital” in the news industry.
Until recently, China’s tech firms had waded into the field of journalism with their own news reporting especially in the fields of entertainment and finance.
The draft law includes new bans on private investment in live-streaming of content related to the economy, sports, education and subjects “related to political affairs, the direction of public opinion and the orientation of values.”
It also bans private enterprises from organizing news-related forums or award ceremonies. That removes platforms for free discussion outside the oversight of the ruling Communist Party and is also likely to deprive private sector firms of a revenue stream.
In the last two months, Chinese authorities have leaned on social media firms to rein in financial bloggers. Weibo said that it had closed over 1,000 accounts. Internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China said that they were dabbling in “rumors, improper comments and other information that misrepresents China’s economic situation or its financial markets.” In September, the CAC said that 47,000 pieces of harmful content had been deleted.
Earlier this month, Luo Changping, former deputy chief editor at the financial news magazine Caijing, was detained by authorities in Hainan for making “insulting” comments about Chinese soldiers during the Korean War. He had been critiquing the patriotic film “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” in which a band of poorly-armed Chinese volunteer soldiers held their ground against superior U.S.-led United Nations forces.
Some sources have said that if the draft law is fully and actively enforced private sector companies would be forced to sell their shares in media properties to state-owned enterprises. Such moves may already be underway.
Alibaba and Tencent have vast media and entertainment empires that stretch from social media through to film production and exhibition. But Alibaba last month announced plans to sell a stake in streaming platform MangoTV that it had bought, with explicit government approval, only a year earlier.
It is not clear whether the inclusion of sports news in the draft law is simply part of the wider pushback against private sector news activity, or whether it is topically linked to the Winter Olympics which will be held in Beijing in early 2022.