LinkedIn is making its move on China.
The professional networking site Monday evening announced it is launching a test version of a Chinese-language site in the country, hoping to make gains in a market that includes more than a half-billion Internet users.
The new site, described as operating in "simplified Chinese," is a huge step into a market that is considered largely off-limits for most of Silicon Valley's Internet behemoths. It supplements an English version of LinkedIn that has been available in China for more than a decade and currently reaches 4 million users.
"Our mission is to connect the world's professionals and create greater economic opportunity — and this is a significant step towards achieving that goal," LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said in a statement announcing the expansion.
The Mountain View, Calif.-based company, which boasts more than 270 million users in more than 200 countries, is the only major U.S. social network allowed to roam within mainland China's heavily policed Internet. Similar sites, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, are blocked by the country's government.
But LinkedIn is not free from China's notoriously aggressive human censors — sometimes referred to as the "Great Firewall" — that sift through online content to ensure it doesn't violate the country's tight Internet regulations.
By choosing to launch a Chinese-language site, LinkedIn is showing it is willing to operate in an enticing market that has bedeviled other Western Internet companies for decades. Other tech firms, most notably Google, have historically spurned China's censorship and surveillance policies, and China's government likewise has shown little interest in courting their services.
But LinkedIn is venturing where its rivals have refused because there is no "dominant incumbent player" — akin to the challenge search giant Baidu poses for Google — to compete with, said Blake Harper, an analyst with the brokerage firm Wunderlich Securities. In addition, the company's values of economic and business growth over personal or political expression aligns more closely with the interests of China's ruling party.
"LinkedIn doesn't really have to give up a lot to stay true to their core mission," Harper said. "With Twitter, [if] you can't say something, that goes against their entire ethos. With Google, it's 'you can't show certain search results,' but that's what Google does."
In short, users are less likely to use LinkedIn to criticize the Chinese government or organize political protests, and censorship will alter the fundamental experience of the network less than it would for a site like Facebook.
Still, business and censorship hurdles remain. And though the company won't have to go up against a Baidu-style giant, it will be forced to contend with several rivals, including 51job[dot]com, Zhaopin, and Ruolin.
"Even when you do everything right and with due diligence, it is really unpredictable as to what government demands will come at you," said Leslie Harris, former president of the Center for Democracy and Technology and a board member of the Global Network Initiative, an Internet-freedom group. "I don't think you can assume that the discussions that occur on the network won't raise concerns for the (Chinese) government."
Weiner, LinkedIn's CEO, admitted the expansion into China is one that "raises difficult questions, but it is clear to us that the decision to proceed is the right one."
"LinkedIn strongly supports freedom of expression and fundamentally disagrees with government censorship," Weiner added. "At the same time, we also believe that LinkedIn's absence in China would deny Chinese professionals a means to connect with others on our global platform, thereby limiting the ability of individual Chinese citizens to pursue and realize the economic opportunities, dreams, and rights most important to them."
Weiner also vaguely pledged that content would only be censored "only when and to the extent required." Additionally, the company promised to be transparent with users about its business in China and protect their rights and data.
Rumors that LinkedIn was readying a move into the most populous country in the world have circulated for weeks, as the tech firm last month hired Derek Shen, founder of a Chinese site similar to Groupon, to run its Chinese operations. The company also recently integrated with WeChat, a Chinese chat platform, which boasts some 300 million regular users.