San Francisco: Zoom Video Communications Inc. said it deactivated accounts of pro-democracy Chinese activists based in the U.S. at the request of China, intensifying concerns that Beijing is extending its censorship clout globally.
Chinese officials reached out to Zoom in May and early June about four videoconference calls that were publicized on social media to commemorate Tiananmen Square protests, the San Jose, California-based company said Thursday in a blog post. Zoom said that China “demanded” the company terminate the meetings and host accounts because of the activity, which it deemed illegal.
Zoom said that at least three of the four meetings contained participants from mainland China, and it made the decision to end three of the meetings and terminate the associated accounts, two in the U.S. and one belonging to an activist in Hong Kong. “Going forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China,” the company said.
Zoom announced Wednesday it had reinstated the closed U.S. accounts, and said it was working on technology that could prevent participants from specific countries from joining calls that were deemed illegal in those areas. The company will also outline a new policy to address these types on requests on June 30.
Beijing employs some of the strictest internet controls in the world, rooting out content and blocking websites it deems a threat to stability. It has scaled up the level of censorship in the years since President Xi Jinping came to power, expanding controls on social media, requiring real-name registration of accounts, criminalizing the spread of rumors and punishing influential commentators with millions of followers.
While China’s Great Firewall blocks access to internet sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, more of its 1.4 billion citizens are turning to home-grown alternatives such as WeChat and Weibo to express their discontent. Controls have become even more stringent this year, after the coronavirus outbreak unleashed a rare outpouring of criticism of China’s government. Internet controls also typically intensify ahead of major political events or other dates deemed sensitive such as the June 4 anniversary of the deadly student protests in 1989.
Consider the Consequences
Now the fear is that China is increasingly bringing its desire to control internet activities beyond its borders to control its citizens and corporations. For companies that want to conduct business in China, the message is clear: Actions that harm China’s interests have implications. Wang Sixin, a professor at the Communication University of China, said tech companies that have operations in China and rely on its market will “need to respect China’s laws, ethics, political correctness and local people’s feeling.” For Zoom, that also applies, regardless of where the virtual meeting takes place, he said.
“China, after all, has a huge market, and we now have measures to counter such actions that are harmful to China,” Wang said. “This is not to say we’re using the market size to bully them. But the companies need to consider the consequences of their actions.”
“Google, Facebook and Twitter all have hurt Chinese people deeply in the past, and they are still doing that during the pandemic, limiting accounts of Chinese diplomats, and China has kept a record of them,” he added. “They can do what they like, but there would be consequences when they or their related businesses want to expand in China.”
In another move that came to light Thursday, Apple Inc. removed two podcast applications from its App Store at the request of the Chinese government. Google pulled its search engine from mainland China in 2010, citing security and censorship concerns. A Google project to create a censored search service for the country, called Dragonfly, was killed last year after protests from employees and U.S. politicians.
Pick a Side
Zoom, which maintains a significant research-and-development workforce in China, is now in the middle of the clash between free speech and government censorship that has confronted other U.S.-based technology companies doing business, or trying to conduct business, in China. Chief Executive Officer Eric Yuan was born in China, but is a U.S. citizen.
The company’s actions stoked worries that the tech company, which has risen to prominence while millions have been stuck at home during the pandemic, was too close to Chinese authorities who have sought to censor images and content about the 1989 protests and resulting massacre in Beijing. The event is a seminal moment for advocates of democracy in China.
U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, wrote Yuan Thursday, stating that Zoom was not the first U.S. company to censor users in order to do business in China, but in the end, the Chinese Communist Party would benefit more than the appmaker.
“It is time for you to pick a side: American principles and free speech, or short-term global profits and censorship,” he wrote.
Universities, big corporations and other users of Zoom during the pandemic will need to consider how much information the company is collecting and whether there is “any bad faith activity with that information after its been captured and collected,” said Michael Norris, Shanghai-based analyst with AgencyChina. “All of this reinforces the extraterritoriality of China’s censorship apparatus.” –Bloomberg