Learning from failure: LinkedIn China

Christopher Chen
4 min readJul 16, 2018

Facebook in 2009.

Twitter, later that year.

Google, in 2010.

Time and time again, in the face of government pressure and the battle over censorship, the Internet giants of the West fell to their knees at the hands of China.

Then just four years ago, in the budding months of 2014, LinkedIn had found themselves asking themselves if they could be Western tech’s David. With 4 million Chinese users organically attaching themselves to the LinkedIn brand, LinkedIn saw a huge opportunity to serve the world’s fastest growing professional economy. LinkedIn wanted to seize control over its underdeveloped infrastructure for career development and job search. LinkedIn wanted to crack China.

“Through this site, we hope to connect over 140 million Chinese professionals with each other and with our more than 277 million existing members globally. Our mission is to connect the world’s professionals and create greater economic opportunity — and this is a significant step towards achieving that goal.

And they did. For about 2 years.

At the onset of LinkedIn’s launch of “领英” (ling-ying), LinkedIn had seemed to have finally figured out the formula. The leadership struck a deal to comply with China’s censorship demands and data requests in order to freely operate in China. They established tight relationships on Chinese grounds and domestic investment as LinkedIn secured partnerships with Sequoia China and China Broadband Capital. They even quickly found sponsorship deals with Chinese superstar VC and angel investors like Hu Haiquan and Xu Xiaoping. This investment into playing on China’s playing field, rather than trying to subvert it, allowed LinkedIn to explode to 10 million users within a year and half.

Over this two-year success, news story after news story, and tech report after tech report chronicled LinkedIn’s path to success in China’s previously thought unnavigable terrain.

Now it’s 2018. The only squeaks of LinkedIn China’s presence are embroiled in controversy over its choices over censorship, LinkedIn China-enabled pyramid schemes, the removal of personal job posting functions, the departure of Head of LinkedIn China, Derek Shen, and how domestic competitor MaiMai has overtaken LinkedIn as the dominant professional social network in China.

So what happened?

More than just adopting the language of the land, you have to adopt the culture. And for LinkedIn, that could be a bullet that is hard to bite.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do

When taking a closer look at LinkedIn in China, there are some values that simply don’t align.

Modesty, humility, and self-control trump self-promotion

When dealing with a culture where self-promotion culture is nonexistent, and modesty, humility, and self-control are valued more in the workplace, creating a space for putting yourself, the individual, on a pedestal, goes entirely against the current. In fact, Harvard Business Review published a few articles about the topic of self-promotion in workplaces where self-promotion is foreign.

These articles highlight the importance of tuning your communication, patience, and ultimately compromise. The fact is, the Western concept of self-promotion in the Chinese setting creates a sense of inauthenticity, distrust, and only weaken you and your peers’ Guanxi.

To work hard, study well, and develop your relationships, to have strong advocates for you behind-the-scenes, are your avenues to success.

When looking at the Chinese cultural environment, LinkedIn and the Chinese workplace stand in polar opposition .

Guanxi dominates job-seeking avenues

While having your parents ask their college friend’s brother-in-law about openings in their company might seem strange in the West, in China, reaching out to your secondary or tertiary network is a regular occurrence.

This speaks to the concept of Guanxi, 关系, which could be literally interpreted as relationships, or network. While it’s undeniable that your network and relationships with people are critically important anywhere in the world, Guanxi has much deeper and intimate connotations.

As China has had a much less robust governing and legal system until recently, Chinese people relied on and still rely on developing Guanxi as the most direct means to ensure safety, responsibility, and at its core, trust.

When it comes to job-seeking functions, Guanxi dictates the vast majority of opportunities. While universities, especially for students in tech, have started to hold career fairs and on-campus recruiting, most students rely on their parents to put them in touch with the best opportunities. Especially as family holds a much larger context and significance in Chinese culture, Guanxi, more often than not, is the avenue to career advancement.

In today’s China, where career development and advancement is a behind-the-scenes affair, joining a platform to publicly declare your job-seeking status can be more a path to being looked down upon, than a key to open doors.

Still, LinkedIn China’s development into a platform with now more than 30 million Chinese professionals certainly suggests that there is space and a need for a networking platform for opportunities that Guanxi can’t quite reach. These cultural points are clues that Maimai seems to have taken better with their anonymous functionality for job search and workplace banter.

The platform that is able to adjust its language, presentation, and ultimately find compromise between self-promotion and an ingrained culture of humility, may still find itself with an incredible valuable piece of the Chinese pie.

Thanks for reading! What was the most interesting thing you learned? Something that resonated with you, or something you disagreed with? I love sharing my thoughts on interesting Chinese tech trends, particularly focusing on the different culture that comes into play in China. If you want to stay in the loop for more East meets West tech crossovers, follow and stay on the lookout!

— Christopher



Christopher Chen

1. Tech. Maybe it's stockholm syndrome, but coding is fun. 2. People. What makes you tick? 3. China + East Asia. What freakin' cool place.