The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
On May 31, Zhou Fengsuo, a U.S.-based Chinese dissident and president of Humanitarian China, organized a virtual Tiananmen Square Massacre commemoration over Zoom. About 250 people, including participants from mainland China, joined the event. It included talks by Zhou and other student leaders of the 1989 democracy movement, the mothers of those killed in the crackdown, and survivors like Dong Shengkun, a Beijing resident who spent 17 years in prison for attempting to block troops from reaching Tiananmen Square.
A week later, Zhou found Zoom had suspended Humanitarian China’s paid account without notification or explanation.
It was only after Axios reported the account closure last week that Zoom reactivated the account and explained it was complying with China’s laws when it shut the account down: “When a meeting is held across different countries, the participants within those countries are required to comply with their respective local laws.”
Zhou called the actions by Zoom, a U.S. company, outrageous. “I’m very angry of course, that even in this country, in the United States ... we have to be prepared for this kind of censorship,” Zhou told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
Zhou was not the only one to have his account disabled: Wang Dan, another Tiananmen student leader, said Zoom interrupted his commemoration event and disabled his account. Lee Cheuk-yan, an organizer of Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen vigil, said Zoom suspended his account last month after the group hosted a series of talks that criticized the Chinese government.
On Thursday, Zoom published a blog post revealing the Chinese government had notified the company of four public Tiananmen Square commemoration meetings on Zoom, which the company claimed it needed to terminate since the events are illegal in China. Zoom said it shut down three of the meetings because it had participants from mainland China and suspended the host accounts.
The company admitted it was wrong to shut down the accounts since they were all based outside mainland China (two in the United States and one in Hong Kong). Zoom leaders said they are developing technology to block participants from certain countries so that people outside China would not be affected.
Unlike other video platforms like Google Meet or Facebook Live, the Chinese government doesn’t block Zoom, allowing mainland users to attend events like the Tiananmen commemorations. But in May, Zoom stopped allowing unpaid Chinese users to host meetings (though they can join meetings).
As Zoom has grown in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, it has also recently faced criticism for China-related security issues. University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found in April the company owns three companies in China where 700 employees work to develop software. That raises concerns that Zoom may face pressure from Chinese authorities.
The report also found Zoom at times distributes encryption keys through servers in China, which raises questions about whether the Chinese government requires Zoom to disclose these keys to authorities. Free calls also do not have end-to-end encryption.
Zoom CEO Eric Yuan also announced that the company mistakenly routed calls from some non-Chinese users through China. He claimed that in the urgency to handle increased traffic due to the pandemic, “we failed to fully implement our usual geo-fencing best practices,” which caused some meetings to connect to systems in China.
Because of the security concerns, the government of Taiwan has banned its officials’ use of Zoom. The German Foreign Ministry restricted Zoom use to personal computers, while the U.S. Senate urged its members not to use the platform.
A group of bipartisan U.S. lawmakers sent Yuan a letter last week asking which Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials asked Zoom to terminate activists’ accounts, what law the activists were breaking, and what data Zoom shares with Beijing. They also asked if the company’s offices in mainland China have CCP branches or committees.
In a separate letter to Yuan, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said Zoom had to choose a side: Either align with the American principle of free speech or cave to China’s authoritarian censorship.
“These oppressive ‘local laws’ are what Party officials use to oppress more than a billion people, including more than 1 million Uighurs who have been forced into slavery,” Hawley wrote. “These ‘local laws’ are what China is using to crack down on protesters in Hong Kong who just want the basic liberties they were promised by international treaty.”