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Zoom CEO Eric Yuan (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

Snapshots of China

Zoom suspends Chinese human rights activist’s account

U.S. lawmakers question the company’s ties to the Chinese government

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.”

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AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Riot police guard a protester as a second reading of a controversial national anthem law takes place in Central district, Hong Kong, on May 27. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Snapshots of China

Hong Kong clampdown leads to loss of special U.S. status

In response to the Hong Kong national security law, the U.S. plans to take away the territory’s trade preferences

When Hong Kong’s democracy protesters waved American flags last November to thank the U.S. government for passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, they knew the bill was a double-edged sword: It requires the United States to assess annually whether Hong Kong has enough autonomy to continue receiving preferential trade benefits. This punishes China for encroaching on Hong Kong and breaking its promise to give the territory a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years.

But the U.S. stripping Hong Kong of its special economic status will also hurt the businesses and people of Hong Kong. Companies would likely leave the international financial hub, driving up unemployment. Still, democracy activists like Joshua Wong hoped U.S. action would cause Beijing to count the high cost of stripping Hong Kong of its freedoms, such as clamping down on remembrances of the Tiananmen Square massacre or outlawing insults to the Chinese national anthem. 

“For decades, Hong Kong has facilitated the influx of global capital and otherwise unavailable goods (e.g. high-tech products) into China,” Wong tweeted last week. “Leaders in Beijing continue the reap the benefits of this arrangement while our freedoms deteriorate. They can’t have it both ways.” 

On May 28 the rubber-stamping National People’s Congress approved plans for a national security law in Hong Kong that would criminalize what it considers subversion and secession (for instance, a court sentenced Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu’s Early Rain Covenant Church to nine years in prison on charges of subversion of state power). The law would allow Beijing to set up security forces in Hong Kong to clamp down on pro-democracy activists and protesters.

In response, President Donald Trump announced “Hong Kong is no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant the special treatment that we have afforded the territory since the handover.” This means the United States will place the same trade restrictions, law enforcement, and travel requirements on Hong Kong as it currently does with mainland China.

Trump also noted Hong Kong and Chinese officials responsible for the national security law would face sanctions. 

China allowed Hong Kong to retain its autonomy after its handover from Britain in 1997 so it could remain an international financial hub and a conduit between China and the rest of the world. Between 2010 and 2018, 73 percent of initial public offerings for mainland Chinese companies took place in Hong Kong, according to the Financial Times. Removing Hong Kong’s special status would “hurt China many times more than it’s going to hurt Hong Kong,” Kyle Bass, chief investment officer for Hayman Capital Management, told The Washington Post

But Beijing claims otherwise since cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen have developed their own financial infrastructure. “This hegemonic act of attempting to interfere in Hong Kong affairs and grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs will not frighten the Chinese people and is doomed to fail,” an editorial in the Communist Party’s People’s Daily said.

Some in Hong Kong worry the territory is becoming the collateral damage of the China-U.S. feud. “This looks like a new Cold War, and Hong Kong is being made a new Berlin,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told The New York Times. “We are caught right in the middle of it.”

The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada issued a joint statement on May 28 condemning China’s new law. It said Beijing’s move to impose the law rather than going through Hong Kong lawmakers “dramatically erode[s] Hong Kong’s autonomy and the system that made it so prosperous.” It also said the law would undermine the “one country, two systems” framework and “raise the prospect of prosecution in Hong Kong for political crimes.” 

The United Kingdom said if China imposed the law, it would offer a path to citizenship to British National Overseas passport holders in Hong Kong as well as their children and dependents, totaling nearly 3 million people. 

The United States also called for the U.N. Security Council to hold a digital meeting to discuss Hong Kong. But Beijing vetoed the meeting, which requires all 15 members to agree to the video conference call.

“For years, the Chinese government and Communist Party have walked back on its commitment to ensure autonomy and freedom for Hong Kong,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “We cannot let Beijing profit from breaking the Sino-British Joint Declaration and trying to crush the spirit of Hong Kong’s people.”

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Police officers react to members of the Democratic Party holding a banner and placards during a protest in front of the Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong on Friday. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung))

Snapshots of China

“The end of Hong Kong”

Beijing signals the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy with a sweeping national security law to criminalize dissent

Crossing the border between mainland China and Hong Kong has always illuminated stark differences. On one side, the internet is censored, any dissent could lead to imprisonment, unregistered churches meet quietly, and the Chinese Communist Party rules with an iron fist. On the other, people access a free internet, protest for their freedoms, worship freely, vote for some of their lawmakers, and have long enjoyed one of the world’s freest economies.

Yet the differences that helped make Hong Kong an international financial hub will likely disappear since Beijing has decided to enact a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong, bypassing local lawmakers. Many decry the action as the end of the “one country, two systems” framework that promised Hong Kong autonomy to develop separately from the mainland.

The national security law would ban “treason, secession, sedition, and subversion,” and criminalize foreign influence. The Chinese government considers much of the dissent and criticism of the central government to fall into those categories. Wang Chen, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), said the government needed to stop democracy protests that began last June, which China attributes to anti-China forces and foreign interference. 

A draft decision submitted at the annual NPC Friday also noted that “when needed, relevant national security organs of the Central People’s Government will set up agencies in Hong Kong to fulfill relevant duties to safeguard national security in accordance with the law.” This could include agents of the Ministry of State Security (China’s intelligence agency) or other powerful state security agents the local government can’t regulate. The legislation could pass as early as next week.

The Hong Kong government tried to pass a national security bill in 2003, which sparked a 500,000-person protest on the streets of Hong Kong as people feared it would restrict their freedoms. In response, then-Chief Executive CY Leung agreed to shelve the law. Last year, citizens took to the streets to protest an extradition law that could have led to Hong Kong residents standing trial in mainland China, again pointing to Beijing’s encroachment. Even after officials shelved that law, protests intensified against the city’s unelected leadership and police violence.

The coronavirus pandemic paused the protests in the past few months, but recently pro-Beijing lawmakers have yet again taken up the issue of a national security bill. Because of continued opposition from the Hong Kong people, Beijing decided to bypass the legislature altogether and impose the bill itself as the rest of the world continues to deal with the pandemic. 

“This is the end of Hong Kong, this is the end of ‘one country, two systems,’” said pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok. “Beijing has completely breached its promise to the Hong Kong people … I foresee that the international status as a city—an international city—will be gone very soon.”

Hong Kong citizens fear the Chinese government limiting their speech. Many began to install virtual private networks (VPNs) to mask their internet usage in case the government imposes the Great Firewall of China on Hong Kong. VPN provider NordVPN said downloads in Hong Kong were 120 times higher than usual on Thursday when the law was announced. Large protests are likely this weekend—protesters had previously scheduled a march to oppose another law that would make insulting the national anthem illegal. 

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