China’s World of Online Professional Networking Amid LinkedIn’s Retreat

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LinkedIn, the world’s largest online professional social networking platform, has announced recently that it will discontinue the localized version of its services in China, which remains the world’s largest workforce. In its place, the company plans to launch InJobs, a new job-hunting application designed for the Chinese market – but without the platform’s signature social feed – expected to begin operations before the end of 2021.

The decision marks a drastic setback for Microsoft-owned LinkedIn’s seven-year experiment in the country, during which time it has garnered an impressive 54 million users, making it one of the company’s largest markets globally.

In a blog post on October 14, LinkedIn’s Senior Vice President of Engineering Mohak Schroff offered insight into the reasons behind the move, including that the platform has been “facing a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.” The comment recalls the experience of other major international web content firms, such as Google and Facebook, which have sought to bring their services to the country for years, to no avail.

But Schroff also alluded to some potential shortcomings of LinkedIn’s own approach to China’s unique business environment, writing: “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.”

As the sun lowers on the company’s full operations in the country, a window of opportunity is now opening for domestic competitors. LinkedIn’s future watered-down service, InJobs, will still need to contend with a diverse ecosystem of online professional networking platforms, most of which originated from and are specifically geared towards the Chinese market.

Networking in Chinese Cyberspace

“It’s inefficient to search for vacancies [on LinkedIn] when you can find more in local apps,” said Chiyu Ma, a civil servant in the northwestern city of Lanzhou. In Ma’s experience, domestic platforms yield better results.

Maimai (脉脉 Màimài) founded in 2013, is one of the most successful examples. Three years ago, the firm became the first unicorn startup in the online professional networking sector with the completion of a $200 million Series D funding round.

Among Maimai’s key features is user anonymity, which allows employees to make comments about their companies online without needing to worry about possible repercussions to their career – akin to the American website Glassdoor.

The founder of the company, Li Fan, objects to those who liken Maimai to its international competitor LinkedIn. “We have never said that we are the LinkedIn of China,” Li once said in an interview. “We consider ourselves to be a version of WeChat for work.”

This more direct and intimate approach to professional networking in the online space, compared with LinkedIn’s lofty ambition of providing a global forum for dialogue, has served Maimai platform well.

For Chinese workers in need of immediate employment, platforms offering direct channels to hiring personnel are most attractive. When asked if she thought if LinkedIn is useful for Chinese workers, Jia, a Shanghai-based psychotherapist, did not mince words: “Definitely not.” She explained that for people working in less mainstream professions, domestic applications simply have much more to offer.

Several Chinese recruitment platforms have managed to fill in the various gaps in the country’s job market, spanning a much wider range of industries and wage levels. “Could you imagine a babysitter searching for employers by LinkedIn? Their only choice is 58.com,” said Ma, the civil servant.

58.com Inc., based in Beijing, is China’s leading digital network for classifieds, allowing local businesses to connect with potential workers either through its website or mobile app. The company delisted from the NYSE in June 2020 after it agreed to an $8.7 billion acquisition deal with a consortium of investors, taking the firm private.

Another leading recruitment site that Microsoft’s forthcoming InJobs service will need to compete with is Boss Zhipin (BOSS直聘 Zhípìn), a popular mobile app operated by parent company Kanzhun Ltd. The platform reached nearly 25 million monthly active users earlier this year, showing significant growth from the previous year. Kanzhun, which has received financial backing from domestic internet giant Tencent, raised $912 million in a U.S. initial public offering in June 2021, among the largest of the year.

Carrying on the conversation

Where platforms like Maimai or 58.com may not be able to cover LinkedIn’s tracks, however, is in providing a forum for users to share content and take part in global public discussions, within a professional or career-focused environment.

Ma feels that LinkedIn’s unique combination of functions into a single online platform not have resonated in the country, saying: “The arrogance of those in power of the company is quite blatant – they thought they actually know their customers in China – what they never knew is, it’s useless to mix social and job-searching online.”

For those seeking a similar digital discussion space to that provided by LinkedIn, some alternatives already exist. One app called Jike (即刻 Jíkè – ‘immediately), provides users with updates on topics they are interested in, also allowing for interaction with others on the platform – it has been described as “a combination of RSS, Google Alerts and Reddit.” The quality of conversation on Jike is generally considered to be higher than on other mainstream online discussion platforms in the country, such as Sina Weibo. Such platforms may stand to benefit from LinkedIn’s restructuring in the Chinese market as its former users migrate elsewhere to carry on the conversation.

The number of employed people in China stood at around 750 million in 2020, according to Statista. While demographic trends continue to reduce the size of the Chinese working-age population, authorities have unveiled plans to create more jobs, including 55 million in urban settings by the end of the government’s 14th Five-Year Plan in 2025.

If successful, this job growth will provide Chinese professional networking platforms with a steady stream of employers to connect with quality candidates amid a tougher, more competitive job market. Although LinkedIn’s retreat marks the closure of yet another digital bridge between Chinese web users and the outside world, the country’s professional community may not miss it for long.