LinkedIn Self-Censorship Shows Cost of Doing Business in China

June 6, 2014 Updated: June 6, 2014

When social networking sites Facebook and Twitter were blocked in China in 2011, it was an enduring mystery as to how LinkedIn remained open to access. This week, the mystery was solved.

On June 4, the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, several LinkedIn users in Hong Kong received emails from the company saying their posts about the massacre had been blocked.

Censorship through LinkedIn should have been expected. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner announced in February that the site would abide by the Chinese regime’s restrictions. His announcement came as LinkedIn launched its simplified Chinese beta site.

On June 4, the world witnessed the consequences of LinkedIn’s decision, as the company censored posts about China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The public reaction was particularly strong since users in Hong Kong received notifications their posts were censored. Under China’s “one party, two systems” policy, Hong Kong is supposed to be outside the reach of the ruling party’s censorship.

Hong Kong legislator Charles Mok received an email from LinkedIn saying one of his posts was censored in China, since it “contained content prohibited in China.”

Mok commented on Twitter, “LinkedIn openly supports the censors of China and should be condemned for such acts.”

It turns out LinkedIn’s agreement for censorship with China has two parts: one affecting people in China, another affecting users everywhere else.

Doug Madey, LinkedIn corporate communications manager, said in a statement, “We are filtering certain content from appearing to members who are within China. We are also filtering certain content posted by members within China from appearing anywhere.”

LinkedIn director of corporate communications Hani Durzy said in a phone interview that the company abides by China’s censors, yet tries to do it in a way that is transparent—which is why users received emails telling them their posts were censored.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “We’re not going to pretend this is easy.”

Censoring Abroad

What is happening through LinkedIn’s deal with China is not an isolated case. It is becoming increasingly apparent that doing business inside China means adhering to China’s censorship outside China.

Under pressure from Chinese censors in March, Reader’s Digest removed a story from an edition meant for publication in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, and India.

The story scheduled for print in Reader’s Digest, “Thirst” by Australian author L.A. Larkin, mentioned Falun Gong. Chinese authorities were able to censor it since Reader’s Digest was printing it inside China.

Bloomberg News killed an investigative story on corruption among Chinese leaders set for print outside China in November 2013. New York Times reported the story was stopped amid concerns it would affect sales of Bloomberg financial terminals in China.

In February, reports also claimed that Chinese language search results on Microsoft’s Bing search engine were being censored for users in the United States. Microsoft denied the claims.

While several U.S. businesses have left China due to the social environment—with Google’s 2010 withdrawal being the loudest—a solution to the growing problem needs to come from beyond the business sector, according to Georges Enderle, professor of international business ethics at the University of Notre Dame.

“In China, business is very much related and linked to the government,” Enderle said in a phone interview. “It makes the situation even more complicated. It’s not only how individual companies should behave, but also the leader structure and culture structure on doing business with integrity.”

The problem could have been addressed through collective action. If companies had collectively refused to follow censorship requirements of the Chinese regime, it is possible the situation would be different from today. But that did not happen, and so whether a company follows China’s censors determines whether it can do business in China at all.

According to Enderle, if the current situation is going to change, “a foreign government needs to play a role as well, it’s not just up to the companies.”

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp