EXPLAINER: Why are foreign tech firms pulling out of China?

HONG KONG — Yahoo Inc. is leaving the China market, suspending its services there as of Monday amid what it says is an “increasingly challenging” business and legal environment. Foreign technology firms have been pulling out or downsizing their operations in mainland China as a strict data privacy law specifying how companies collect, and store data takes effect. Such companies have decided that regulatory uncertainty and reputational risks outweigh the advantages of staying in the vast market.


Yahoo Inc. said in a statement Tuesday its services in China stopped as of Nov. 1. This week, users visiting the Engadget China site run by Yahoo find a popup notice saying the site will not publish any new content. Last month, Microsoft’s professional networking platform LinkedIn said it would shutter the Chinese version of its location this year and replace it with a jobs board with no social networking functions. Epic Games, which operates the popular video game Fortnite, also says it will pull the fun out of the China market as of Nov. 15. The game was launched in China via a partnership with China’s largest gaming company, Tencent, owns a 40% stake in Epic.



The Personal Information Protection Law that took effect on Nov. 1 limits the amount of information companies can gather and sets standards for storing it. Companies must get users’ consent to collect, use or share data and provide ways to opt out of data-sharing. Companies also must get permission to send users’ personal information abroad. The new law raises compliance costs and adds uncertainty for Western companies operating in China. Companies clouting the rules could be fined up to 50 million yuan ($7.8 million) or 5% of their yearly revenue.

Chinese regulators have cracked down on technology companies, seeking to curb their influence and address complaints that some companies misuse data and use other tactics that hurt consumers’ interests. The downsizing and departures come as U.S. and China tussle over technology and trade. Washington has imposed restrictions on telecoms equipment giant Huawei and other Chinese tech companies, alleging they have ties with China’s military and government. Local companies are also feeling the heat, with e-commerce companies like Alibaba facing fines. Regulators are investigating some companies and have imposed strict rules that affect gaming firms like NetEase and Tencent.


China operates what is known as a “Great Firewall,” which uses laws and technologies to enforce censorship. Content and keywords deemed politically sensitive or inappropriate must be scrubbed from the internet. Companies must police their platforms, deleting posts and making sensitive keywords unsearchable. The Great Firewall has long blocked Western social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter and is generally not accessible to mainland China.

“China has installed a draconian policy governing internet operators, telling them what to do and especially what not to do,” said Francis Lun, CEO of GEO Securities Limited in Hong Kong. “I think the question comes down to why bother (operating as a foreign company in China) with such a limited return and heavy liability,” he said. A research strategy manager at the Shanghai-based consultancy AgencyChina, Michael Norris, said compliance costs would rise further.

“Fortnite’s exit is particularly damaging, as it shows not even a close partnership and investment with Tencent is enough to make the business casework,” he said. Foreign tech companies operating in China also face pressure from their home markets. Some U.S. lawmakers criticized LinkedIn’s censorship of U.S. journalist profiles in China. In 2007, Yahoo Inc. was criticized for handing over information on Chinese dissidents to the Chinese government, which eventually led to their imprisonment.


Chinese alternatives have popped up over the years to fill the void left by foreign social media platforms that have given up operating under the Great Firewall. Instead of Google, China’s most popular search engine is Baidu. Messaging apps like WeChat are used instead of WhatsApp or Messenger. Weibo, a microblogging platform, is the closest equivalent to Twitter, with more than 560 million Chinese users. Unless they use a virtual private network (VPN) to mask their internet traffic and location and circumvent the web restrictions, the Chinese have fewer options for social networking and access to content. They are likely to turn to strictly censored local alternatives.

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!